In 1980s Bolivia, the most powerful drug lord is Gonzalo Reyes (Federico Luppi). Working with General Lujan (Rodolfo Ranni), Reyes runs his own concentration camp, where people are forced to process the cocaine that is then sold in the United States. Reyes’s pilot is an American named Cliff Adams (John Schneider). Reyes eventually gives Cliff a very important assignment. He wants Cliff to assassinate Marcelo Villalba (John Vitali), a crusading journalist who is running for president of the country.
What Reyes and Lugan don’t know but soon learn is that Cliff is actually a Miami-based DEA agent who has been working deep undercover. Despite his assignment and the fact that even the U.S. government seems to consider Villalba to be expendable, Cliff refuses to carry out the assassination. Soon, he and his girlfriend (Kathryn Witt) and their friend Bailey (Royal Dano) are being pursued by Reyes and Lujan. Cliff’s girlfriend is also a reporter and she has compiled a story that, if it is published, will blow the lid off of Reyes and Lujan’s partndership.
Produced by Roger Corman and filmed in Argentina, Cocaine Wars is very much a product of its time. In the 1980s, America was all about the War on Drugs, especially the War on Cocaine. However, some of the world’s biggest drug lords were working with the tactic approval of some of America’s most important allies in South and Central America. For as long as it was convenient and strategically useful, the American government would look the other way. It was only when the situation became internationally embarrassing, as in the case of Panama’s General Manuel Noriega, that the U.S. would actually step in. This was certainly the case in Bolivia, where drug lords were so essential to overthrowing the government that the subsequent coup was referred to as being “the cocaine coup.” General Lujan is a stand-in for a large number of Bolivian military men who continually overthrew the country’s democratically-elected leaders. By including several Germans among Reyes’s organization, Cocaine Wars also acknowledges the role that Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie played in not only propping up a series of Bolivian strongmen and drug organizations but also teaching the Bolivian secret police how to torture information out of political prisoners. While Cocaine Wars is not primarily a political film, it is still notable as an early example of a film that pointed out why the War on Drugs was destined for failure.
As for the film itself, it is a standard low-budget action film. There aren’t any huge surprises to be found but, at 82 minutes, it moves quickly and it has enough action to satisfy fans of the genre. John Schneider may not have been Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzengger, or even Chuck Norris but that works to the movie’s advantage. Unlike those bigger-than-life heroes, Schneider does not come across as being indestructible and that adds a little more suspense to the inevitable gunfights and torture scenes. Schneider is a likable and effective action lead, even if you never do forget that you’re essentially watching a TV actor taking a stab at the big screen.