Colombia: Cocaine


Colombia is the world's biggest producer of cocaine, controlling some 80% of the world market. It is also the third-largest grower of marijuana. Since the late 1980s, the country has begun growing opium poppies, and producing high-grade heroin. The vast majority of these drugs are produced for export, primarily to the USA, but also to Europe.

The production and trafficking of these drugs, which is, of course, illegal, is controlled by regional mafias, referred to as cartels. The Medellín Cartel has been on the front pages of the world's newspapers for the past decade. It was the strongest cartel during the 1980s and dominated a significant portion of the cocaine business, but it has since been overshadowed by the Cali Cartel. Apart from these major cartels, there are regional groupings in Bogotá, Santa Marta, Bucaramanga and other cities.

The cartels started in a small way in the early 1970s using primitive smuggling methods. The cocaine was packed into shoe heels or sewn into the linings of suitcases or coats, and smuggled overseas by mulas (paid persons carrying drugs) on regular commercial flights. The cartels bought the cocaine paste in Bolivia and Peru, refined it in clandestine laboratories hidden in the Colombian jungles and distributed the pure product to the USA, mainly through Florida.

The boom years began in the early 1980s, and the Medellín Cartel became the principal mafia. Its leaders - Pablo Escobar, Jorge Luis Ochoa, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha and Carlos Lehder - lived quietly in freedom and luxury. Lehder founded a newspaper and a political party, Movimiento Nacional Latino. Escobar also founded a newspaper and, in 1982, was elected to the Congress! By 1983, Escobar's personal wealth was estimated to be US$2 billion, making him the richest criminal in the world. He financed the construction of a barrio for 200 poor families in Medellín, and for this and several other benevolent actions, he was called the Robin Hood Paisa.

In mid-1983, Tranquilandia, the largest cocaine laboratory in history, went into production on the banks of the Río Yarí in Los Llanos. It had 14 independent, fully equipped laboratories, a water and electricity supply, roads, dormitories and its own airstrip. It produced 3500 kg of pure cocaine every month.

The climate in which such laboratories could operate changed in August 1983 when Belisario Betancur appointed Rodrigo Lara Bonilla Minister of Justice. Bonilla launched a campaign against the drug trade, which led El Espectador, one of Bogotá's leading daily papers, to publicise some of Escobar's former crimes. The war between the cartel and the government began.

In March 1984, police raided Tranquilandia and arrested everyone working there. The police confiscated seven aeroplanes, a number of weapons and vehicles, and all the chemicals on the premises. Fourteen tonnes of cocaine were reportedly seized and thrown into the river!

The cartel bosses disappeared from public life. All of them except Lehder left for Panama, from where, in May 1984, they proposed an unusual peace treaty to President Betancur. For immunity from prosecution and extradition, they offered to invest their capital in national development programmes. More tantalising still, they proposed to pay Colombia's entire foreign debt, some US$13 billion! After much consideration, their proposals were turned down by the government.

The Medellín Cartel continued to operate throughout the 1980s and began to invest its profits in land, and later in industry. As the drug traffickers became major landowners, they began to create private armies to protect their investments. The most notorious of these was the MAS (Muerte a Secuestradores, or Death to Kidnappers), a group created after Ochoa's sister was kidnapped.

In 1984, the Medellín Cartel assassinated its major adversary, Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. The government responded by implementing an extradition treaty that had been signed years earlier with the USA but never enforced. Four minor drug traffickers were swiftly sent to the USA to stand trial. The Medellín Cartel immediately began a campaign against the extradition. Calling themselves the `extraditables', they declared, `better a grave in Colombia than a jail in the USA'. The campaign won a degree of nationalist support against the treaty.

The government refused to soften its stand, so the cartel bosses began to target the treaty's prominent supporters, such as Guillermo Cano, the publisher of El Espectador, who was assassinated in late 1986. Eventually, even the Attorney-General was gunned down in the escalating conflict over the treaty. Colombia's security forces retaliated. In February 1987, the anti-narcotics police, with the cooperation of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), captured and extradited to the USA one of the top cartel leaders, Carlos Lehder.

Until 1989, the drug war had consisted of strong declarations from both sides, and a few showpiece acts of violence and revenge. This changed when the cartel assassinated the leading presidential candidate, Luis Carlos Galán, in August 1989. For the next six months, all hell broke loose. Galán's murder led to a declaration of all out war by the government, and the USA immediately offered US$65 million in emergency aid and logistical support.

In the opening salvo of this new war, President Barco confiscated 989 buildings and ranches, 367 aeroplanes, 73 boats, 710 vehicles, 4.7 tonnes of cocaine, 1279 guns and 25,000 rounds of ammunition. The traffickers responded with a hair-raising campaign of terror, burning the farms of regional politicians in Antioquia and detonating bombs in banks, newspapers offices, political party headquarters and private homes in Bogotá, Cali, Medellín and Barranquilla.

In September 1989, an explosion destroyed the headquarters of El Espectador. In November, a mid-air bombing killed all 101 passengers and six crew members aboard an Avianca flight from Bogotá to Cali. In December, a huge truck bomb ripped into the bottom floors of the national police agency (DAS) in Bogotá the blast was so powerful it damaged buildings 20 blocks away.

The war culminated in a massive manhunt that led to the killing of another cartel leader, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, known as `El Mexicano', who was suspected of masterminding the terror. After his death, the remaining cartel leaders urged the government to negotiate. Lengthy negotiations led to the surrender of the three Ochoa brothers, Pablo Escobar and their aids.

The deal they struck required the drug traffickers to surrender and plead guilty to just one crime in exchange for guarantees that they would not be extradited and would serve a reduced sentence in a specially-built prison in Envigado, the home town of Pablo Escobar, on the outskirts of Medellín. At the same time, the Constitutional Assembly formally rejected the extradition treaty for Colombian nationals, removing the issue from both Colombian politics and the drug war.

With the surrender or death of all the top leaders of the Medellín Cartel, the narco-terrorism subsided, though the drug trade continued unaffected. An estimated two to three tonnes of top-quality cocaine continued to enter the USA every week in large cargoes smuggled by sea or air. Although Escobar and his associates ran their business from behind bars, they were unable to maintain domination of the market.

Narco-terrorism resumed in July 1992 when Pablo Escobar escaped from his La Catedral jail following the government's bumbling attempts to move him to a more secure prison. Over the next year and a half, the elite 1500-man Search Block sought Escobar, tracking down and killing most of his close aids and collaborators. Finally, in December 1993, after 499 days of searching, the special unit located Escobar and shot him dead. The government trumpeted its victory.

Yet the final victory is a long way ahead. Drug trafficking hasn't diminished as the government hoped it would - in fact it's steadily growing. While Colombia's elite force concentrated its resources, hunting one man and persecuting one cartel, the other cartels were quick to take advantage of the opportune circumstances. The Cali Cartel, which developed during the 1980s, swiftly moved into the shattered Medellín Cartel's markets, and became Colombia's largest drug trafficker. The Cali organisation, led by the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, rules the industry in a quieter, more business-like manner. It's probably no less ruthless than its Medellín rival, but certainly more discreet and sophisticated, avoiding open violence and terrorism if it is not 'necessary'. By 1994, the Cali Cartel was thought to control over 80% of New York's cocaine market and had dominant shares in other US and European markets. There are rumours that the surviving Medellín bosses may join the Cali network to create a supercartel, a mafia more powerful than anything Colombia has seen. The Cali bosses have also diversified into opium poppies and heroin, reflecting the change in consumer habits in the USA. Recent crackdowns on the Cali Cartel involved 3000 soldiers raiding houses in Cali and Bogotá, and the arrest of cartel leader Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela. But until the USA rethinks its drug strategy, including the legalisation of drugs, there's little hope that the cartels will simply walk away from a US$5-billion-a-year business.
Back to History Lesson Colombia