#986 – Paul Solotaroff | Rolling Stones

Sevan Matossian (00:00):

You’re a test run for it. Bam. We’re live.

Paul Solotaroff (00:05):


Sevan Matossian (00:06):

Just like that. Good to see you. Good morning.

Paul Solotaroff (00:09):

Brilliant to see you have a use.

Sevan Matossian (00:11):

I’m awesome. Your name popped in my phone and text messages from what I would, I think is a mutual friend now, Dale King over at Portsmouth CrossFit.

Paul Solotaroff (00:24):

Correct? Yeah. Portsmouth is an extraordinary story, not only as a recovery community, but as a touchstone location in the worst of the war on drugs and most recently the best of the war on drugs.

Sevan Matossian (00:50):

Oh, meaning because Dale’s like he’s doing it.

Paul Solotaroff (00:54):

He’s doing it, but he happened to hail from the one town that’s actually getting it right. The one town that is lucky enough to host the most effective broadband treatment program for a severe veteran opioid addicts I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been writing about the war on drugs for 35 years now.

Sevan Matossian (01:22):

I know. I was kind of tripping on that, how long you’ve been covering it to give people some history on you. When I looked over, how many books have you authored?

Paul Solotaroff (01:33):

I’ve written four.

Sevan Matossian (01:36):

Are there any other, Paul, will you pronounce your last name for me? Is it so Toro

Paul Solotaroff (01:40):

Solo Tar, so Tarof,

Sevan Matossian (01:44):

So Toro. Are there any other Paul Solo Toros?

Paul Solotaroff (01:48):

I’ve never met one or seen one in a phone book anywhere.

Sevan Matossian (01:52):

Yeah. Wild. Okay, because I was looking, I’m like, wow, this guy’s had an incredible, I wasn’t going to say career, but what’s a better word for it? Repertoire or there’s just a lot of good stuff you’ve done and there’s certain topics that you’ve been covering a long time. Is drugs your forte sort of just the drug use in America, drug use on planet Earth.

Paul Solotaroff (02:19):

It happens to be the thing that I’ve covered longest for sure. I have been writing about reporting on the war on drugs for 35 years, or as I prefer to call it, the War on the Poor, which we’ve been waging for 50 years ever since. Richard Nixon walked out into the Rose Garden, the White House in June of 73 and launched this woefully misbegotten piece of public policy called the War on Drugs.

Sevan Matossian (02:52):

He called it that, that’s what he called it.

Paul Solotaroff (02:55):

He launched it, as I say, in the early seventies to create a phony war for at the time, a phony problem. We were not living in a country that was being flooded with overseas product with narcotics from Mexico, Columbia, Bolivia, Peru, et cetera, et cetera. And nowadays, of course, from China in the form of fentanyl. And yet despite the fact that drug use was limited to recreational drug use was limited to the youth community largely. And of course, to rock and roll, Richard Nixon spun up this global crisis that didn’t exist and devoted an extraordinary amount of our national treasurer to standing up the drug enforcement agency to empowering the F B I.

Sevan Matossian (04:06):

Hey Paul, sorry to interrupt. People are in the comments are saying that they’re having trouble hearing you.

Paul Solotaroff (04:13):

Let’s see, what’s a better way to do this? Shall I go to speakerphone?

Sevan Matossian (04:18):

Yeah, let’s try speakerphone. Is it currently using the mic on that headset?

Paul Solotaroff (04:23):

It is,

Sevan Matossian (04:23):

Yeah. Okay. Yeah, let’s try. Thank you. I appreciate you. I apologize for interrupting. Not at all. That was a concise, solid history of the warn drugs.

Paul Solotaroff (04:33):

Hang on just a second.

Sevan Matossian (04:34):

Okay. Easy people. Easy, easy, easy. Everyone. Settle down. Settle down. I know he’s saying good stuff. Everyone’s settled down. How’s that?

Paul Solotaroff (04:45):

Am I,

Sevan Matossian (04:47):

Wow. Much better. Thank you. Good. I could hear you fine, but I have headphones on. You were talking straight to my brain. Hey, I want to get something clear. Were you saying in 73 that there wasn’t the problem, but today there is. The problem, is it still, because that’s the drumbeat that’s going today, that the borders open, tons of drugs are coming in, that it’s intentional that it’s a sentient organization or being doing it, whether it’s to make money or to kill our youth. That is it a real problem today?

Paul Solotaroff (05:19):

Oh my God, is it a real

Sevan Matossian (05:20):

Problem today? Okay. Okay.

Paul Solotaroff (05:23):

Here’s the problem. We live next door to the world number one wholesale distributor of narcotics,

Sevan Matossian (05:32):

Mexico, Canada. Oh, Mexico.

Paul Solotaroff (05:35):

Thank you. The flip side of that is that we are far and away the world’s number one consumer of narcotics. And so you have a relationship between buyer and seller that is unbreakable, that is impossible to interdict in any meaningful way because we share an 1100 mile border with enormous gaps, not just above ground, but below ground. So I’ve written extensively about El Chapo and his genius as a man with a second grade education who didn’t learn to read and write until he was an adult, by which time he was already billionaire. And Chapo’s great brainstorm was to, well, he had two. He had an extraordinary eye for patterns. So he figured out at a very young age when he was a lowly driver for the Sinaloa cartel, actually at that point called the Gu Hara cartel or the Federation, he could get loads across the border where nobody else ever dreamt there was a passage.


And so he very quickly rose to power as a logistics guy and a ruthless logistics guy. Chapo was killed, tens and tens of thousands of people, but back then he was doing the shooting himself. He had no problem walking up to somebody, putting his tool to their forehead and pulling the trigger, utterly ruthless. In any event, it was Chapo who built the world’s first great narco super tunnel, and since he hired a Mexican architect to do that in the early nineties, and he did so he wouldn’t have to pay what’s called plaza or a tax to the cartel running Tijuana, which is the world’s biggest land point of entry between two countries.

Sevan Matossian (08:07):

What’s that called again? That largest land opening

Paul Solotaroff (08:12):

Point of entry? P o. It is the San Isidro port of entry. It’s actually two ports, about five miles apart if my geography is right in San Diego. And what Chapo did, rather than pay the guys who ran Tijuana, which was and remains the most lucrative drug checkpoint on the planet, he decided to dig a tunnel underneath them. And for years was funneling first weed, then cocaine, then heroin, and then fentanyl. Under the points of entry in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas,

Sevan Matossian (09:01):

There were ended up being fort major tunnels.

Paul Solotaroff (09:04):

Oh no, there were dozens. We have no idea how many there are. It’s, it’s done so brilliantly. These are tunnels dug by hand through soft lowy dirt that he and his engineers somehow figured out a way not only to buttress, but to send light and HVAC systems through. So each tunnel will have a rail, and on that rail that essentially train rail, his guys will push these big carts full of product from one warehouse on the Mexican side of the sunny Searo point of entry to a warehouse on the San Diego side of the point of entry. Except it’s not just one warehouse. And it’s not just one tunnel, it’s dozens. And as soon as the d e a or its tunnel crew, yep, a separate standalone federal agency, a bunch of cops whose only job is to find and take down or seal up these narco tunnels. Soon as they find one and pour concrete into it, the cartels simply dig another one right next door to it using one of the buttress walls as a foundation.

Sevan Matossian (10:42):

No shit, it’s just like that. It’s just like, Hey, they filled that one. We’ll dig the one right next to it and utilize, because we already know the path. We know where it pops up.

Paul Solotaroff (10:54):


Sevan Matossian (10:58):

This is falling into the weeds a bit. You said so many things that I want to talk about, but isn’t that obvious. And then it’s the same building and the people who’ve caught the first one see the trucks going in and out of the same buildings again and they just shut it down

Paul Solotaroff (11:16):

Again. You never see the trucks

Sevan Matossian (11:18):

Even at the warehouses.

Paul Solotaroff (11:20):

Well, of course. So there are trucks on either side. Chapo was a genius not only at pulling and pushing stuff through, pushing drugs through pulling cash out. He was a genius at setting up auxiliary businesses. He owned a chain of supermarkets. What do supermarkets use 18 wheelers to truck produce. We get an astonishing amount of our produce. Lettuce, avocado, nuts, tomatoes, bananas, et cetera from Mexico. That point of entry I named San Ciro is the busiest in the world. There are 75,000 vehicles passing through every day from Tijuana to San Diego, and once they’re across the border, it’s a straight shot up I five to Los Angeles and points North and Los Angeles. I know we’re getting very weedy here, but Los Angeles is the great Western distribution point. Los Angeles has an extraordinarily vast complex of warehouses in South LA from which drugs are constantly coming and going. So LA connected to all the major highways by one or two left turns, then feeds its product to Chicago, which is America’s central headquarters for drugs. And once it’s in Chicago, Chicago is two and a half hours from New York, from just about anywhere in the country and also is completely networked by Super Highways.

Sevan Matossian (13:20):

A couple of things, I don’t know if this is true, but I’ll just throw this out there. I know you’re a sports guy too. I heard that Wayne Gretzky’s genius, I probably read it in some pop psychology book somewhere, was the fact that he could see patterns so that basically he would see something happening a minute, the puck guys doing something with the puck that he’d seen his whole life, and so he would go skate somewhere that no one else was because he knew that 82% of the time the puck ends up back over here. He gets it, he scores. So I think,

Paul Solotaroff (13:49):

Yeah, I used to say of Gretzky that he could see two seconds into the future. So it wasn’t that he knew where the puck was going to be. He knew where the puck would be two seconds from the time he had it on his stick or the time it was on someone else’s stick. And Gretzky like Steve Nash, it’s funny with these Canadians, how do they see into the future was able to read plays that hadn’t happened yet. Jordan, same way, could read plays Steph the same way Steph Curry can see a place end before it’s begun.

Sevan Matossian (14:28):

So we got that with El Chapo. Another just quick connection. This is just pointless what I’m saying, except I fancy it. You said that he was a logistics genius. I don’t remember who it was. I don’t remember if it was Darwin’s parents or someone, but someone who has made teacups figured out that they could put the teacups on a boat. Do you know the story I’m talking about? And take the teacups down the boat and sell them to the villages along. Maybe it was the Thames. And that’s how they eventually got to the Queen. And when the queen started using those teacups, that business fucking exploded. But it was a logistics things problem that person solved and it was a tea cup maker. God, I wish I could, maybe someone in the comments will. So I’m seeing these stories, right? Once again, these patterns of these and then ballsy, right?

Paul Solotaroff (15:25):

Yeah. One of the things that they say about paratroopers serial killers and narco traffickers is that they lack a brain chemical called M A O M A O is the fear neurotransmitter. And there are people with panic disorder who have way too much of it, or they have generalized anxiety disorder or they have O C D, and then there are the people with little or none of it. And those are the people to be really scared of because they don’t fear consequences.

Sevan Matossian (16:02):

David Weed, I met El Chapo in the aisle of Dale Day Margarita in 1996.

Paul Solotaroff (16:10):

Wow. Wow. Glad you’re still on this side of the grass to tell us that.

Sevan Matossian (16:15):

Hey, I wonder if you know that the second they tell you about one of the tunnels, your odds of living the next 10 years goes down by like 12% or some shit like that. You know what I mean? Because

Paul Solotaroff (16:26):

So much worse than that. So who digs the tunnels? Chapo essentially kidnaps peasants. He doesn’t kidnap them. They don’t know they’ve been kidnapped yet. They’ll find out on the other end. So these folks who are desperate for money, the folks who are swimming across the Rio Grande who are skulking under or over the fence, he rounds up these migrants, many of them not from Mexico, but from Honduras or Salvador, who are even more desperate than the poorest people in Guadalajara, Sonora, et cetera. And they dig these tunnels by hand and their bonus at the end of the tunnel dig is a bullet in the back of the head.

Sevan Matossian (17:14):

What percentage of them?

Paul Solotaroff (17:16):

A hundred percent.

Sevan Matossian (17:19):

And how long does it take to live a tunnel to dig a tunnel?

Paul Solotaroff (17:22):

That I couldn’t tell you

Sevan Matossian (17:24):

That works too, to live a tunnel. I said it wrong, but that works too. How long to live a tunnel?

Paul Solotaroff (17:28):

No one who’s ever dug a tunnel has talked to me because they’d have to use a swami to speak to me from the afterlife. We by, I mean archeologists are going to be digging up chapo’s, mass burial sites for thousands of years. The reason Chapo killed everyone connected with the digging of a tunnel was at some point or another, they were going to have some kind of innocuous run with law enforcement. And Chapo could never be sure that they wouldn’t panic and tell whoever had stopped them, whether it was a traffic cop or a federal officer, where that tunnel was in exchange for immigration consideration.

Sevan Matossian (18:22):

Paul, I’m going to make a leap here real quick. Bear with me. I would go to a hotel with a friend of mine for years and he would bring a stack of twenties. We were going to stay in the hotel for a week. This happened all the time. And he would bring a stack of twenties, I don’t know how many, let’s say a hundred. And every person he saw from the second we drove showed up there. He would give $20, $20 to the guy who opened his door, $20 to the guy who took his bags up, $20 to the guy at the front desk. And so by the time we got to the room, he had spent $200, he’d given at least 10 twenties away. And he would do that throughout the stay and it would change our entire stay. And he would explain to me that you do that. These are nice hotels, right? The Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, things like that. And you do that. And what it does is it completely changes your stay there because everyone there is now working for you because they know that they’re going to get a 20.


I understand and appreciate the phenomenon greatly, and I love rewarding people. You know what I mean? I love giving the Starbucks guy a tip who says, thank you, please. You have beautiful kids. Fuck yeah. Thank you for contributing to the happiness and civil, I love all that stuff, right? Rewarding the people around you. But I think I’m also a libertarian, and the problem is that I don’t want big government. But if the government, what I’m hearing you say also is that whoever has the most money’s running the fucking show every time you’re saying this, you haven’t said it explicitly. Now I’m like, how is he getting away with so much? And I’m like, well, because he’s putting food on so many people’s tables, right?

Paul Solotaroff (20:05):

Yeah. So what’s that phrase, silver or lead? When a guy is recruited into some low level functions for the cartels, it is, they’re not filling out job applications. Although Chapo made everybody fill out job applications, and the information he was most interested in was the age and location of their children.

Sevan Matossian (20:36):

Oh fuck.

Paul Solotaroff (20:39):

But the boarding bonus is lead or silver. You either take our money or you take our bullet, and that is a really strong incentivizer. Right.

Sevan Matossian (20:57):

Okay. So real quick here. So there’s two things. So what you’re saying is the guys digging the tunnels, they did it for the money and for food, trying to feed their kids. But you’re saying there’s another group of people who if they didn’t work for him, they knew the only other option was death?

Paul Solotaroff (21:12):

That is correct.

Sevan Matossian (21:13):

Oh, interesting. I’d never heard that. Okay. Okay.

Paul Solotaroff (21:15):

Well, so if you’re going to run a 15, 20 billion a year operation, you need all sorts of employees. You need the folks who dig the tunnels. You need the folks who carry the product through. You need the folks on the other side who never see the drugs, never touch the money, the logistics people. You need the folks who operate, who open and operate phony businesses on the US side. You’ve got to wash that cash somehow. Right? Much of it is coming back on the retail side in fives, tens and twenties, nobody wants fives, tens or twenties. You can’t take them to a bank and you certainly can’t hide them. They’re too bulky. So what comes across finally is a hundred dollars bills. And one of the agents I have written a lot about, I won’t name him here, did a raid on one of Chapo’s houses, and I’m going to get the town wrong. I think it was Monterey, where they went in looking for bodies. They thought because people were going in and not coming out of this particular dwelling, that it was a kill site. And they found no bodies. They brought the dogs in, no trace, no scent. They couldn’t even find weapons. And then finally, somebody has the idea to open up the living room wall just for giggles. And what do they find? They find that the entire house, two story house is insulated with a hundred dollars bills in vacuum sealed back.

Sevan Matossian (23:05):


Paul Solotaroff (23:06):

The insulation in that house was 26 million of US currency in hundreds. And I know your next question, where does all that money go once it’s seized? Yeah, so it goes to the US Treasury with a, I think it’s a 10% kickout to the local law enforcement agency who recovered the money. So you ask why it’s impossible to win the war on drugs or make any progress. Well, we have now built a hundred billion a year industry called the Prison Industrial Complex. We have 2.2 million folks sitting in state, federal, and county prisons in America. That’s a thousand percent more than we had when the war on drugs kicked off. And last numbers, I saw two thirds of the folks in all of our prisons combined have substance abuse issues. It’s why they’re there. So if we had elected to treat those folks instead, which is vastly more effective as a crime deterrent, we would have a third of the population in prison and those folks would be out working in the community as taxpayers, not tax burdens. But I digress.

Sevan Matossian (24:47):

And that’s why I was curious what opinion, what some of your opinions were on them on the situation. So you’re basically saying one out of every 150 people in the United States is locked up behind bars, right?

Paul Solotaroff (25:00):

Correct. And in certain communities, challenge communities, communities of color, the number is vastly higher. So the prison population in America, God, it’s been a while since I looked at these,

Sevan Matossian (25:13):

But that’s not because of their skin color.

Paul Solotaroff (25:15):

No, no, no, no, no. And

Sevan Matossian (25:17):

Unfortunately, because it’s said like that, it feels like the vast majority of the United States thinks that.

Paul Solotaroff (25:22):


Sevan Matossian (25:24):

Which really, I have to tell you, kind of scares me at the IQ of the people around me.

Paul Solotaroff (25:32):

Well, we get warnings of that or reminders of that every four years during our national elections. So there is a grossly disproportionate number of people of color in prison, but they’re in prison not because they’re inherently more criminal by no stretch of the imagination. They’re in prison because they’re poor and because their communities are saturated by external sources with drugs. Used to be the Italian mob in the forties and fifties, New York, and then of course it was Colombian mobs, Dominican mobs, et cetera, et cetera. What

Sevan Matossian (26:19):

About culture and what about culture’s role and yeah, what about culture’s role including that in terms of households? There’s this statistic I see over and over and over just everywhere. If you don’t have a mother and father that are together, your chances of having cancer go up 50%. They’re correlates. They’re not causes. Your chances of going to 80% of the dudes in jail don’t have dads. Another really strong correlate, Paul, is the penis. If you have a penis, shit gets, I mean, your chances of going to jail are significantly higher than if you have a vagina.

Paul Solotaroff (26:58):

All true. You haven’t said a false word yet,

Sevan Matossian (27:02):

And that’s why it bugs me every time. The color thing really bugs me. I just don’t think it’s a strong correlate. No, it’s God. I think it’s bad propaganda for people who are better equipped to live at the equator than at the North Pole. Yeah. You know what I mean?

Paul Solotaroff (27:22):

I do. The truth is that the vast, vast majority of people in prison are poor. Right,

Sevan Matossian (27:30):

Right, right.

Paul Solotaroff (27:32):

I’m not a criminologist. Sometimes I play one on TV in these series that gets spun off from my stories and Rolling Stone. But the things you said are right. If there’s not a father around, if there is economic trauma, because it is an enormously traumatizing thing to be poor in America. You are surrounded on all sides by images of luxury, by images of acquisition. And here you are with barely enough to eat. If that attending horrifically, underfunded or understaffed or all of the above schools in dangerous communities, you’ve seen people die. You’ve seen violence from a very young age. The traumatized brain will treat itself one way or another. And the greatest folly of the war on drugs is that we are trying to eradicate the ways people dose themselves for pain and fear without doing anything about the pain and fear that people live in.

Sevan Matossian (28:51):

Right. All of the drugs, whatever it is. Right. It’s a coping mechanism.

Paul Solotaroff (29:00):


Sevan Matossian (29:01):

Tool. Coping tool, right. Alcohol, all drugs. I mean, almost

Paul Solotaroff (29:06):

Natural synthetic. You’re right. So we’ve been doing this since we pushed the rock aside in the cave and walked outside for the first time. It was an inherently terrifying thing to be alive in prehistoric sub-Saharan Africa. And it’s for a lot of us terrifying to be alive right now. One of the things that has changed so much though in the 30 odd years I’ve been covering the war on drugs is you could not get yourself dead by smoking a joint or huffing a line of cocaine. Back in the days when we were all doing that, when we were all playing, when we were all experimenting, when we were all running around on Thursday for.

The above transcript is generated using AI technology and therefore may contain errors.

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