Snow on the Atlantic: How Cocaine Came to Europe provides an extensive dissection of how a sleepy corner of Spain grew to occupy a vital position in one of the world’s largest cocaine markets.

Written by Spanish journalist Nacho Carretero and originally released in Spain as Fariña — a Galician euphemism for cocaine, stemming from the word for flour in the local dialect–Snow on the Atlantic is the rare book whose title improves upon translation. For the most part, the prose and subject matter translate with equal seamlessness into English.

The book’s opening sequences are particularly engaging. Humming along like an explanatory voiceover from a Martin Scorsese film, Carretero offers readers a lively exposition on the origins of Galicia’s maritime black market. For centuries, Galicians benefitted from — and according to local legend, even engineered — the shipwrecks of valuable cargos, helping themselves to the remains. As he describes the so-called Coast of Death and the fear it came to inspire around Europe, Galicia takes shape in the mind’s eye as an ideally spooky and anarchic backdrop for a story about outlaws.

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As the narrative moves toward the modern era — and the local capos evolve from plundering shipwrecks to trafficking tobacco, hashish, and finally cocaine — Carretero’s Galicia begins to exhibit striking parallels with northern Mexico. Both regions leveraged their advantageous geographical position to become gatekeepers of a massive consumer drug market.

In both cases, decades or even centuries of black-market commerce fostered the growth of smuggling experts ideally suited to the needs of Colombian cocaine producers. As in Mexico, the Galician clans took advantage of an authoritarian political system to secure support from generations of government officials. Even after each nation’s democratic opening, the legacy of these corrupt relationships has complicated efforts to combat organized crime.

Carretero shows how drug smuggling — above all in the cocaine trade, but the effect pre-dates the drug’s popularity in Europe — first exploited and then profoundly distorted the local economy. The earliest cocaine traffickers saw that fishing trawlers were natural conduits for drug shipments (especially as European Community regulations suddenly left Galicia with a glut of unused ships in the 1980s). Similarly, the popularity of the region’s seafood restaurants made them handy mechanisms for laundering illegal revenues.

But rather than a mere leech upon the legitimate economy, the drug trade evolved into a principal engine of local employment and wealth. One famous capo used his drug money to found a consortium consisting of no less than 28 companies.

Other kingpins made similar investments. The banking sector — whether in Galicia, Barcelona, Switzerland, or Panama — was eager to service the needs of this new class of entrepreneurs, whatever the suspicions about the source of their wealth. At such a scale, the local economy shifted to accommodate organized crime, rather than vice versa.

The result is a culture that has been profoundly shaped by the illegal drivers of the economy. As Carretero writes:

“It became normal to think and talk about evading the authorities, to respect…a capo who had nothing to do with lawful state apparatus, and to earn fast money… It was more or less the norm to break the law. It was just the way things were.”

While documenting these broad social impacts, Carretero displays a gift for plucking the absurdities from the local criminal culture. He introduces us to a pig whose tragic overdose–he consumes two kilos of hashish hidden in his sty — turns him into a local celebrity.

A legendary speedboat capable of impossible feats serves as one section’s protagonist. Another chapter covers the exploits of a tobacco-smuggling aviator and president of a local football club, including his fly-bys of the stadium on match days. Similar vignettes abound, and they are among the most enjoyable of Snow’s nearly 350 pages.

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Snow gets bogged down when it covers the personalities dominating the landscape in one era or another. The book presents a seemingly endless number of minor characters, often introduced essentially as lists along with thumbnail sketches of their respective careers. This is a particularly ineffective narrative device, which leaves the reader with no specific impression of any of Galicia’s narcos, as they all just jumble together. A reader can’t help but wonder if the book wouldn’t have benefitted from a greater focus on a smaller number of major figures.

Snow concludes with an extended rundown of Galicia today, including profiles of the new generation of capos. As Carretero explains, today’s criminal networks are more risk-averse and operate with lower profiles, but Galicia is no less successful in servicing the market for recreational drugs. It has evolved with the times — the longstanding Colombian partnerships have been supplemented by ties to Venezuelan and African criminal groups –and its role in the European cocaine trade remains intact.

In one sense, this is a cautionary tale about the intractability of the drug trade: The crusading magistrates, multiple investigations, billions of euros, and tens of thousands of man-hours dedicated to reducing the region’s drug smuggling have essentially failed, and little has really changed.

But from another perspective, Galicia looks like a success story. Carretero reports that the entire region has had approximately 30 drug-related killings since the 1990s, which is little more than a bad weekend in Acapulco or Tijuana. The reduction of the most powerful groups of yesteryear has not provoked the bloodshed typical of power vacuums in Latin America. The ties between criminal actors and local politicians have not turned the latter into frequent targets of violence.

Whatever its drug-induced challenges, Galicia remains a comparatively healthy society. If the Western Hemisphere’s criminal landscape grew to resemble Galicia’s, few would complain.

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