As my jet approached the city of Arica along Chile's northern frontier, I could hardly miss the plume of inky black smoke trailing across the Atacama Desert. On the chance that I might get a nice shot of junkyard buttheads burning tires, I drove back a sketchy dirt road.
Coming up on a phalanx of grim-faced men with machine guns, I concluded this was more than your average garbage fire. The day before, Chilean drug police had boarded a cargo ship and found themselves the nervous custodians of nearly nine tons of cocaine, worth something like $600 million. Rather than tempt fate, they opted to burn it quickly before it grew legs and wandered off on its own.
Avoiding sudden movements and with my hands clearly visible, I slowly walked up and introduced myself. Since my Spanish vocabulary is limited to drink orders and maternal insults, neither of which seemed like a smart idea, I was happy to find an officer who spoke enough English to understand my plea for permission to photograph the conflagration.
Dozens of police cadets were lined up in a bucket brigade tossing bricks of cocaine into a bonfire. I did a little mental math and realized each of the two kilogram bricks was roughly equivalent to a Seattle condo. Chile's armed forces aren't known for a sense of humor, and it looks like I'll be renting for the foreseeable future.