TROPIC OF CANCER: Mistah Kurtz—he all the way live.

Printed in the Border Crossing issue (Arthur No. 18, Sept. 2005). All the good photography is Simon Lund. Bad photos taken by author Dave “David” Reeves.

I’m not bragging, but I had a little skin cancer. I walked around L. A. trying to generate sympathy with it, maybe get a free beer. Nobody cared. Everybody has a disease now.

A friend of mine insisted I come to a rainforest clinic near his hotel in Iquitos, Peru. “There’s no cancer here. This is the where big pharmaceutical companies come to crib traditional medicines from Amazonian witch doctors for a “healthy profit.”


Three derelict 727s lay off the runway in Iquitos, all with the same story: “Crash landed one night, full of coca paste. The pilot ran off into the jungle.”

The Iquitos airport is at the southern border of the cradle of cocaine. For years the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had a rule called “Fly and Die”; one of the program’s outcomes was that a reported 60 civilian aircraft were downed by DEA agents between Iquitos and Columbia. This program lost funding last November when agents blasted a Cessna full of missionaries out of the sky. Consequently, the DEA is now gone from the area, and continuous flights north make up what is known as ”The Air Bridge”—the route by which Peruvian coca paste is flown to Columbian processing labs, yielding two thirds of the world’s cocaine.

Iquitos runs on unmuffled mopeds racing from red light to red light at full speed. It’s fun at first but after awhile you feel like you live in a wasp’s nest from the insistent buzzing.

“The Venice of Peru” is tacked together from the continuous stream of balsa rafts floating down the Amazon. Harvesting balsa is profitable only when used to hide the great bulks of coca paste sent down river. All day and night saw blades shriek in the mills lining the river, giving the air a fresh piney scent. It is in this way that the world loses its last rainforest to gain another slum.

The population of Iquitos is estimated at a half a million people, but there is no way to parse the burgeoning chaos of the floating ghetto called Belen. No one starves here as fruit falls out of the tree right on your head. If you can’t hook a fish, just wait for one of these ugly bastards to crawl up on land.

When the food comes in Peru they say, “Let’s eat a little of life and death.”

Back when the Soviets had money they provided Peru the bulk of its economic aid. In order to sabotage those godless Commies, the CIA exponentialized the cocaine trade by facilitating the formation of cartels that moved coca from the cradle of cocaine to labs in Columbia and then to American ghettoes where it was wildly popular and generated enough profit for a lot of really wonderful covert CIA operations.

This was a blow to the Soviets, and so they started a great rumor that has apparently killed more missionaries than the DEA. The rumor goes like this: Continue reading