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Surfers, drug smuggling and running from the law in 'Coronado High'

Cover art for Joshuah Bearman's article,
Cover art for Joshuah Bearman's article, "Coronado High."

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The sleepy beach town of Coronado in San Diego County is the last place you might imagine to be the birthplace of an international drug ring, but that's exactly what it turned into during the summer of 1969. 

Dubbed the Coronado Company, a drug ring made up of pot-smoking surfers and former high school Spanish teacher, Lou Villar, as the mastermind smuggled bundles of marijuana over the border in Tijuana. Within 10 years, the operation became a $100 million empire, making it the largest pot smuggling ring on the West Coast. 

Writer Joshuah Bearman, best known for his Wired article "The Great Escape," which was the inspiration for the Oscar-Winning movie "Argo," recently published a piece about the Coronado Company for The Atavist called "Coronado High."

For "Coronado High," Bearman interviewed Villar and a number of other people involved, including DEA agent who finally unraveled the network. Hollywood has already come knocking for the story, and George Clooney set to work on adapting it into a feature film. 

Bearman joined Take Two to talk about how he came upon the story of "Coronado High," who the main players are and why they're actually lucky that they finally got caught. 

Interview Highlights:

On how the Coronado Company came to be:
"Originally there was this guy named Lance Weber, whose nickname was "The Wizard." Everybody had nicknames back then. Apparently in the '70s nicknames were the rage, we don't have them anymore. I feel jealous like we do need nicknames. Lance had washed out of the Navy but was kind of a grease monkey.

"He was the first guy to build a lowrider bicycle and he'd cruise around the beach all stoned with his hair blowing in the wind smoking a  joint. He went down to Mexico and sort of wound up at the Long Bar in TJ which was "The Joint." He got ahold of a block, brought that over, converted it to money and then started scaling up just with his friends. He lived in this big Victorian house called the yellow house...they would work on VW bugs in the alley and then go to the beach at night and see the light of Tijuana twinkling across the water and it was beckoning to them."

On who Lou Vallar was and how he became the company's ring leader:
"Lou had been the Spanish teacher at the high school, and also he had coached the basketball team for a year and the swim team for a year. He was sort of a beloved teacher he started teaching when he was 25 or something. He was a young, charming, handsome guy, he was Cuban by birth grown up in New York.

"By the time that Lance started doing the drug smuggling operation Lou had dropped out like everybody else and was hanging the beach, smoking joints and roasting pigs in luaus, reading carols castaneda and then lance saw him and said 'uh hey man you speak Spanish right?' and Lou said 'yeah" and he said 'Well lets go down to Mexico and make these deals'."

"The reason why Lou wound up the ring leader is because he just had this instinctive charism and charm and it's important to say that the Coronado Company never dealt with guns or had any violence this is sort of before all that. Lance always called Lou "golden tongue" because he could talk his way through anything."

On how it was lucky that the Coronado Company fell apart:
"James Conklin, who's the DEA agent who tracked them down, for years said that essentially they were lucky to have gotten busted at this time. They got busted in the early '80s, which is when real organized crimes was coming into pot smuggling. I kind of imagine it sort of like the "Boogie Nights" of the pot trade because this was a time when the pot trade was innocent really and they were all innocent."

On why it's such a great story:
"Besides just being a true crime story and this crazy smuggling tale, it's like a coming of age story, because it starts with the exuberance of youth and the '60s and the '70s and all bets are off and we're throwing over the establishment and who needs rules and the sexual revolution. Eventually they'd run aground on the realities of adulthood where there are consequences and people disappoint one another and those consequences turn out to be really hard."