A BRIT who spent 15 years with Colombia's most deadly drug cartels has described a world of blood, cocaine and a strange mix of black magic & "holy" hitmen.
He also described the moment a narcos gunman threatened to kill him as he covered the country's bloody drug wars.
Investigate journalist Toby Muse gained the trust of key cartel members, offering him unparalleled access to the bloodthirsty gangs who run Colombia's cocaine trade with military-like efficiency and brutal violence.
Toby, whose book Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels was published in 2020, told The Sun Online how he got close to the men and women at every level of the drugs gangs, from the lowest coca farmers to the cocaine kingpins, and the cold-blooded assassins who carry out their hits.
In the process, he also gained an insight into the "tsunami" of cocaine flooding the world, from the jungles of Colombia to the streets of London.
And he described how the killers have a strange mix of spirituality and black magic, often using witch doctors to summon "demons" to help them fight rivals – and with hitmen sometimes believing they are doing God's work.
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Describing his most terrifying experiences, he recalled the time he was out in a remote area of Colombia near the Venezuela border with a group of narco militia gunmen.
"We were the Catatumbo River on Friday night," he said. "This is one of the places where they grow the coca. The whole local economy revolves around it.
"Everybody had cracked open the beers and were on their fifth or sixth ones. We were sitting in the dirt outside someone's house around a fire, the music was blaring.
"Suddenly, one of the militia gunmen, who was drunk, shouted out: 'Screw it, I'm going to kill that gringo son of a b****.'
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"He wasn't looking at me but was shouting loud enough that he knew I could hear.
"I think he was saying that they wouldn't necessarily kill me right now, but that they could kill me tonight."
At the time, the group were in such a remote and inaccessible area of the country that if they had decided to kill Toby, it's unlikely he would ever have been found.
The nearest town of Tibu, home to just 30,000 people, was only around 30km away, but to reach it would have taken around six hours, including walking, hitching a lift on the back of a motorbike, crossing a river in a truck, and then catching a taxi along the final stretch of highway.
To this day, Toby says he doesn't know why they didn't kill him.
"It would have been hard for them to justify killing me," he said. "I was there with a community organiser who had invited me, they wanted me to see the reality of the situation faced by Colombia's coca farmers."
Like standing in a casino where everyone is making money and sex is on offer to everybody, but at any point, someone could step up and put a bullet in your brain
He added that tourists will never see this world and that if he hadn't had people who could vouch for him, it's likely he would have been turned back or kidnapped before he ever reached the coca farms.
On another occasion, the cartel he was covering were organising a welcome party for a group of foreigners who were coming to Colombia as part of a major cocaine deal.
They told Toby the nationality of the foreigners and the next day, coincidentally, the group were arrested and paraded on TV news.
"When you are around these people as a journalist, you don't want to hear about any future plans," he said.
"If anything goes wrong, they will look at you as a snitch."
In the days following the arrest, Toby said he tried to avoid the cartel members as much as possible until he was contacted late at night by a long-time friend in the underworld, who said he needed to see him.
"I thought he was coming to kill me," he admitted. Instead, he helped him escape.
BLACK MAGIC KILLERS
One of the most bizarre features of the Colombian drug cartels was their obsession with spirit religion, including black magic.
The Clan del Golfo, by far the country's largest and most powerful cocaine syndicate, regularly hired witches and warlocks to cast spells for the cartel.
One particularly dark spell would "haunt" rival cartel members or law enforcement officers leading them to commit suicide.
"It would be like having a demon on your back telling you to 'kill yourself, kill yourself' all day," he said.
Another spell described to Toby was a so-called "invisibility" incantation.
"The witch would take dust from the bone of a cat which had been killed in a specific way," he said.
"That dust would be put in with the shipment of drugs and supposedly the port inspectors will not notice them.
Unsurprisingly, in a world where death can come at any moment, religion plays a major role in the lives of many narcos.
For his book, Toby interviewed a man named Alex, a cartel hitman who prayed to the Virgin Mary before each contract killing.
He would travel to the notorious shrine in Medellin which Pablo Escobar's men would visit ahead of a mission.
It is called the Virgin of the Mystic Rose, but it goes by a darker nickname – the Virgin of the Assassins.
Toby asked Alex how he squared his faith with his job as a murderer for hire.
"He told me, 'If God really doesn't want me to kill someone, he will stop me. So when I kill someone, God wanted them punished because he didn't protect them. If I fail, then he didn't want them punished.'"
Describing how it felt being in the world of the drug cartels, Toby said: "It is like standing in a casino where everyone is making money and sex is on offer to everybody, but at any point, someone could step up and put a bullet in your brain."
He added: "You can't separate sex from the cocaine trade. When young men in Colombia want to get into it, yes they think about the money, but also the models and actresses.
"For young people in slums run by the drug gangs, cartels are their Hollywood."
In the 1980s, Colombia's most prominent newsreader Virginia Vallejo had an affair with Pablo Escobar, subsequently writing the book Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar about their relationship.
It was turned into a film in 2018.
Many of Colombia's leading models have had very public affairs with narcos.
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Looking back on his time with the drug gangs of Colombia, Toby described what he called "a constant sense of dread, like an anchor around your neck."
He added: "Death is always nearby. There is a very dark atmosphere, with violence never more than a finger click away."
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