CRIME CULTURE: Journalist and author Jesse Fink spent two years of his life interviewing and befriending Luis Navia, one of the biggest cocaine traffickers in US history. A journey of redemption followed and an extraordinary untold story from one of the most hostile industries on earth. April Shepherd talked to both for True Crime News Weekly.
Luis Antonio Navia was not what I expected.
Luis, now 65, was a Narco for 25 years trafficking cocaine for Columbian and Mexican cartels, from the start of his career in the 1970’s until he was captured by Operation Journey in 2000.
The multinational initiative apprehended Luis and 25 tonnes of cocaine (worth approximately $1 billion) on the 26th August 2000. This came after a relentless two year battle to shut down the Columbian organisation which was responsible for shipping cocaine to twelve nations worldwide.
Luis, who was born in Cuba and moved to the US as a young child, was charged with federal drug charges in America and spent a mere five years in jail. He was considered favourably for his cooperation and his non-violent nature throughout his years working with the cartels.
Since then Luis has lived a fairly low-key life comparatively, he now lives in Miami, runs a construction company, has a private consulting business and liaises with the United States government regarding their ongoing war on drugs.
Jesse Fink was a journalist for two decades before he turned to writing memoirs and biographies. After writing two music biographies in a row, Fink was contemplating writing something different, perhaps a World War II story, when a contact told him about Luis – a former Narco looking to tell his story.
Two years of interviewing later, Luis Antonio Navia and Jesse Fink’s new book Pure Narco was released in October of this year.
“This story of a cocaine trafficker came into my life – when I first started talking to him he was quite cagey and reluctant to reveal too much of his story, but we started chatting everyday and he trusted me enough to open up,” said Fink.
Luis is charismatic and easy to talk to; I find us veering off topic, talking about the state of the world, the war on drugs, Coronavirus and cocaine in Australia. Looking back now, the events in Pure Narco seem like a distant memory to him.
“For me when I look back, I can’t believe it happened – I wouldn’t be able to do that again if I had to. It was 25 years and one thing led to the other, the whole 25 years flew by, it’s not the kind of thing you plan, it just happens. You deal with it. Some days are better than others. It’s not really what I did, it’s how long I did it for,” said Luis.
The book is a mix of crime, drama and comedy, the gruesome stories of the Narco world cleverly alleviated through comedic asides and the journalistic voice of Jesse paired with Luis’ humor established throughout the book.
Jesse describes Luis as nothing like he had envisioned him. Having heard of his longevity in the drug trafficking world Jesse was surprised when he met Luis.
“He wasn’t what I expected at all, he talks like a Miami wise guy and you have his certain impression of what people like that should look like, and then you meet Luis and he just looks like your average middle aged Cuban – American guy,” explained Jesse.
“He’s communicative and quite a gentle person, but he was involved in an industry where his bosses had no hesitation in killing you if you did something wrong.”
Luis’ charm, optimism and demeanor make it easy to forget the business he once was immersed in, with even him looking back at his past with a tinge of disbelief.
“It made me think a lot about how fortunate I’ve been to come out of that alive and be able to tell the story,” said Luis.
Luis was importing, exporting and moving cocaine across the globe for some of the biggest heavyweights in the industry. He’d worked with some of the most intimidating Narcos in the world such as Sicilia Falcón and Pablo Escobar, even moving Escobar’s cocaine on more than one occasion.
“25 years of playing with fire like that, of walking the tightrope like that – it’s crazy,” said Luis.
Luis came from an affluent background and he had no financial grounds to enter the industry he would soon dominate, as with a lot of things young men do, the catalyst was a girl.
Luis had been selling grams of cocaine to fellow college kids at the prestigious Georgetown University when he met Bia, a beautiful woman with connections to the cartel, he was 23 and hooked – on Bia and the intoxicating industry he found himself in.
Luis only has the highest admiration for his friend Bia, who is now in her 70’s and with whom he still keeps in touch with today.
“She was intense, being with her was a one time adventure – an adventure like that not too many people get to know, she is a great person in my life,” said Luis.
Money was no object for Luis, who regularly indulged in thousand dollar dinners with beautiful women surrounding him during his days as a Narco. When asked what he would think of a Netflix series of his life he replied “it’d make a great TV show, it’d have a lot of eye candy”.
Luis was apprehensive at first for the book and the publicity rounds,“I’ve always been very anonymous and had very little public presence”.
For someone who had spent over a quarter of his life looking over his shoulder, one can imagine that revealing a lifetime’s worth of secrets is nerve wracking.
Guardia Nacional officers at a drugs bust in 2000: at the time it was South America’s biggest ever cocaine bust (Image: Penguin / Supplied)
As you read Pure Narco it’s hard to not envision the story being turned into a Netflix special or a feature film; the women, violence, adventures, it seems as if it was made for the screen. Jesse and Luis have had expressions of interest already and both are looking forward to seeing where Luis’ story takes them.
“Hopefully after the book comes out, we see an adaptation into a series or something like a film, there’s so many different ways you could tell that story, it’s a multidimensional story which accounts for why it’s such a long book,” said Jesse.
One thing that is obvious as I spoke to both the men was their friendship and admiration for each other’s lived experiences, skills and character, even if they are from completely different worlds.
“I think Jesse did a great job of blending this all together, I mean what Jesse did, I don’t even know how he did it, 25 years – it could have been four books,” said Luis.
Luis is the opposite of what you’d envision: he’s warm, funny and has a lot of wisdom to give. A self described business and ladies man Luis believes he survived in the industry for so long because of his aversion to the violence that plagues it.
He was a businessman and had no interest in violence – just being rich, even now he’s become involved in selling masks and sanitisers, his business has gone “from cocaine to COVID”, said Luis.
Luis Navia with daughter Juliana in 1998 (Image: Penguin / Supplied)
Today, Luis is happy to slow down, spend time with his family and would like to start talking at schools, believing education is the key to prevent addiction.
“The war on drugs as we know it – war, that’s a total failure. We are never going to win this with war, with guns, with arresting people, with putting people in jail, there’s more cocaine today than there’s ever been. The best thing to do is educate people and have resources to help those who are afflicted with addiction,” said Luis.
One of Luis’ biggest regrets is spending a large portion of his life chasing after money, especially when his family was young.
“My biggest mistake was not retiring the day my daughter, Juliana, was born,” Luis said. “Looking back at it, it’s one thing to put yourself at risk, but to put your family at risk, that’s when I look back and I’m very thankful, I thank god.”
Pure Narco is above all else a story of redemption. Luis is at peace with his life and even though he is apprehensive for the publicity, feels that telling his story has been a form of therapy – his story finally on paper for all to see.
“It was therapeutic, it has been good to be able to realise how fortunate I’ve been.”
Pure Narco is out now at all major bookstores