Tom Wainwright writes:
It was an extraordinary life: international drug smuggling, secret meetings with MI6, games of cat and mouse with the Drug Enforcement Administration and, in the end, a US prison sentence.
Howard Marks, who died on 10 April and will be best remembered as “Mr Nice” – one of 43 aliases during his criminal career – pulled off all manner of madcap plots and stunts during his time in the drugs game.
Yet perhaps his greatest feat was his transformation in the public imagination into an alternative national treasure.
On his death he was hailed by James Brown, the magazine editor who employed Marks as a columnist, as a “true modern-day folk hero”.
The author Irvine Welsh said he was “a marvellous, unique human being”. It is a status he does not deserve.
Far from the grand caper that Marks described in his books and talks, the drug-trafficking business is one that involves the murder of thousands every year, and has brought many poor countries to their knees.
The laundering of the reputations of those who run it – Mr Nice included – must end.
Marks was not a violent man, and he made his fortune in cannabis, less harmful than most illegal drugs (and indeed less harmful than many legal ones; simply not true at all).
Yet his was not a career that hurt no one.
His business involved cutting deals with the Japanese yakuza, the New York mafia and Colombian cannabis suppliers.
The millions of pounds he funnelled towards these and other contacts – corrupt police officers, double-dealing army officers, IRA members and others – fed money into organised criminal networks around the world, principally in countries where the state was too weak to avoid being overwhelmed by them.
He never bumped anyone off himself. But sending a few million to a Colombian drug cartel is no better than doing business with Islamic State.
It may even be worse: the sadistic inventiveness of Latin America’s cartel hitmen is more sophisticated than anything that goes on in the “caliphate”: cartels have been known to employ doctors to keep their victims alive for longer under torture.
I once interviewed a gang leader in El Salvador who had murdered his most recent victim using a floor-polishing machine. He was absolutely charming in person, for whatever that’s worth.
Marks did nothing like that. But it is bizarre that someone who did business at one remove from purveyors of this kind of violence is being eulogised today.
The Mr Nice persona was carefully and artfully cultivated, but this was not as unusual as one might think.
For, no less than money laundering, reputation laundering is a common feature of the international drugs business.
During my time in Mexico I saw leaders of the narcotics industry transformed in the media from profit-seeking thugs into lovable outlaws.
Pablo Escobar, who ran the Medellín cartel until his death in 1993, enjoyed significant popular support in parts of Colombia, and was even elected to the national congress early in his career.
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the recently recaptured leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, enjoys a similar following: a poll just after his previous capture found that 28% of Mexicans thought his arrest was a bad thing; only half approved.
What drug traffickers have realised is that if they are to survive and prosper they need to invest in public relations.
Evading capture is possible only if locals are onside, or at least not actively hostile.
The desire to burnish a reputation is what lies behind the commissioning of Mexican narcocorridos, the bouncy accordion ballads celebrating the achievements of gangsters.
It is also what motivates the investment by Latin American traffickers in public housing, sports facilities and churches: cartels can improve their images by cynically spending money on “corporate social responsibility”, just as ordinary businesses do.
The reputation laundering also suits the drugs industry in its retail markets.
For those who buy illegal drugs, it is a nagging worry that their purchase has contributed to the cost of someone dying a slow death in a faraway country.
In the case of cocaine, the entire supply of which is controlled by Latin American cartels, this is an uncomfortable certainty.
For cannabis, the risk is lower, since much of it is now grown closer to home.
But even then, some of it has bloody origins: the Sinaloa cartel, for instance, is still reckoned to make about half its money from marijuana.
It is much more reassuring for consumers – and therefore better in business terms for dealers – if suppliers are portrayed as lovable rogues, allowing consumers to forget about the industry’s darker side.
They should not be allowed to get away with it.
After his release from prison, Marks campaigned for the legalisation of cannabis, touring the country with his one-man show and even standing for parliament on the issue.
He was right about one thing: the least bad way to deal with drugs would be to legalise them, taking the $300bn business out of the hands of organised crime and into the regulated, taxable sector [I refuse to be a dealer like that].
But until that day, the truth is that the drugs industry, and those who run it, should be considered anything but nice.