Breaking Bad in 1970s Coronado
The journalist behind “Argo” digs into Crown City’s dirty secret.
Search for “Coronado” on Google and you’ll find links to plenty of pages about the well-manicured “Crown City” on the peninsula across the bay from downtown. The Hotel Del, the beaches, the bridge: It’s all here.
But scroll down and you’ll find something the Chamber of Commerce isn’t eager to brag about: A $100 million marijuana-smuggling operation that got its start in this tidiest of towns thanks to a high school teacher and a bunch of beach bums.
The true story of 1970s surfers-turned-kingpins — plus “daring escapades, hedonistic excess, and friendships betrayed” — unfolds in “Coronado High,” a 25,000-word story published this summer by The Atavist, an online nonfiction outfit. GQ magazine ran a shorter version, and writer Joshuah Bearman has sold the movie rights.
It’s not the first time. Bearman wrote the 2007 magazine story that inspired the film “Argo,” which won an Academy Award for best picture earlier this year.
I asked Bearman to describe how a bunch of hippie kids from Coronado managed to dominate the drug trade for so long without getting captured — or worse.
Coronado, prim and proper, seems like the very last place you’d expect to give birth to a drug-smuggling ring. Why do you think the Coronado Company, as it was called, got its start there? Wasn’t it the equivalent of Mayberry?
By this time, even in Mayberry, you’d start catching people smoking pot on the water tower.
Coronado was an ideal place for this kind of thing to materialize, a laid-back beach town where a California lifestyle was emerging in the 1960s. And these kids were all looking to rebel.
What else helped this happen in Coronado?
It was a small, tight-knit town, and the Coronado Company succeeded because they were a close group of people. It was a place where surfing was big, so they were comfortable with a water-borne smuggling enterprise, and surfing took them to Mexico.
Also, a lot of them were mechanically inclined and familiar with engineering, problem-solving and coordination thanks to their close proximity to the Navy or even their time served in it.
Was there a point where the Coronado Company came together as a distinctly criminal organization?
In 1967, it was no big deal to sell your friend a joint. People saw how much money could be made, and it all started increasing.
I don’t think there’s any point where they said, “I’m going to enter into an illegal enterprise.” But there was this entrepreneurial moment of realization.
Were they ever scared of what they’d gotten into?
I don’t think they were ever afraid. There was no fear, and they were actually rather fearless: Can we get 10 tons of marijuana off this boat with a helicopter? Let’s do it.
The reason they were so unafraid is that they had spent so much money and resources that they felt invulnerable. They thought they’d never get caught. Reality is where you feel fear, and they lost touch with reality.
Today, we think of drug smuggling as an inherently dangerous endeavor. But violence never threatened these people. How come?
They just never dealt with anyone dangerous. The world of pot smuggling wasn’t violent.
Were they fortunate to be out of the business before things got really dicey?
The prosecutor who tracked them down said they were lucky to be arrested then because not long thereafter the cartels and organized crime moved into pot smuggling.
If they hadn’t gotten busted, they might have found themselves involved with a real criminal element.
It sounds like a very innocent time for the people in your story.
It’s totally innocent.
The heroin trade was run by the mafia and cocaine was coming in through the Colombians, but what these guys were doing was essentially harmless: The sun is shining and the boats are coming in.
They would lose their innocence eventually when the police came in, and things got serious and people lost their way.
How does the loss of innocence play out in your story?
It was a loss of innocence for the people involved and, to some extent, for the ’60s. This was when the ’60s was turning into the ’70s and, on the tail end, into the ’80s. The hippies turned into materialistic yuppies, and that’s the story of the Coronado Company.
They all started as beach burn-outs and, by the end, they were living in Santa Barbara and playing polo. It’s that cultural shift.
By the time they get arrested, everyone does jail time or has to face the music in some other way. Everybody is an adult. Youth is lost.