Since the 1970's, Colombia has been home to some of the most violent and
sophisticated drug trafficking organizations in the world. What started as a
small cocaine smuggling business has, in the last thirty years, blossomed into
an enormous multi-national cocaine empire. Traffickers today have enough
capital under their control to build sophisticated smuggling equipment, such as
a high tech submarine that was recently discovered by the Colombian National
Police. Colombian cocaine traffickers had hired engineering experts from
Russia and the United States to help with the design of the submarine, which
apparently would have been used to secretly ship large quantities of cocaine to
the United States.
Traffickers started out with much more modest goals. In the mid-1970s,
marijuana traffickers in Colombia began exporting small quantities of cocaine
to the United States hidden in suitcases. At that point, cocaine could be
processed for $1500/kilo in jungle labs and could be sold on the streets of
America for as much as $50,000/kilo.
The astounding profits attracted an interesting mix of characters into the
business. Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha had roots in Colombia's somewhat murky
emerald trade. The Ochoa brothers were from a well respected ranching and
horsing family. And the violent leader, Pablo Escobar, was a common street
thief who masterminded the criminal enterprise that became known as the
The men from Medellin joined together with a young marijuana smuggler named
Carlos Lehder, who convinced the leaders that they could fly cocaine in small
airplanes directly into the United States, avoiding the need for countless
suitcase trips. The large quantities and the growing appetite for cocaine in
the United States led to huge profits, which the cartel began re-investing
into more sophisticated labs, better airplanes and even an island in the
Caribbean where the planes could refuel.
But the success had a darker side. Pablo Escobar was incredibly violent and
his quest for power within the Colombian government led to a stand-off between
the cartel and the government. During the 1980's, the cartel revolted against
the government's threats to extradite the traffickers to the United States.
Pablo Escobar is thought to be responsible for the murder of hundreds of
government officials, police, prosecutors, judges, journalists and innocent
The cartel began to self-destruct as the violence and power grew. Rodriguez
Gacha was eventually gunned down by the Colombian police. Jorge, Juan David
and Fabio Ochoa turned themselves into the Colombian government in the early
1990s in exchange for lenient prison terms. And Pablo Escobar was hunted down
and killed by the Colombian police after a long series of battles.
Part of the downfall of the Medellin cartel was due to their main rivals in
the Colombian city of Cali, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers and Santacruz
Londono. The men from Cali were more subtle and less flashy than their
counterparts in Medellin. They conducted their smuggling as a sophisticated
business, quietly re-investing their profits in legitimate businesses.
The Cali cartel began to attack the Medellin cartel -- particularly Pablo
Escobar -- as their competition became more and more violent. They eventually
would form the PEPES, or People Against Pablo Escobar, which specifically
targeted Escobar's homes, businesses and lieutenants. The Cali cartel also
began secretly supplying the Colombian police and the DEA with information
about Pablo Escobar's actions and whereabouts. By 1994, Escobar was alone and
running for his life when the Colombian police managed to track him down.
But for several years before, the Cali businessmen had been dominating more and
more of the cocaine trade. They employed the techniques of terrorist groups by
separating their workers into cells, with each cell knowing little about other
employees.. They hired internationally renowned lawyers to study the moves of
the DEA and the US prosecutors. They began using technology as a tool for
their business - hiring and training top engineers to design communications
equipment that could not be bugged.
And their business thrived. When cocaine use in the United States began to
drop, they began shipping more and more into Europe and Asia. The leaders are
thought to own huge swaths of land in Colombia, along with dozens of very
successful legitimate businesses.
The Cali leaders were astute businessmen and they invested heavily in
political protection. In the past ten years, both the former president of
Colombia, Ernesto Samper and hundreds of Congressmen and Senators have been
accused of accepting campaign financing from the Rodriguez Orejuala
But, the leaders were eventually tracked down. They were arrested in the
mid-1990s and are currently serving 10 to 15 year prison terms. Many experts
believe they actually worked out an arrangement with the Colombian government
under similar terms to the Ochoas, that they would not be extradited to a US
prison cell. DEA agents believe they are still running their empire from their
After the destruction of both the Cali and Medellin cartels, the cocaine
business began to fragment. Younger lieutenants realized that the large
organizations had been more vulnerable to attack by US and Colombian
authorities. They formed smaller, more controllable groups and began
compartmentalizing their responsibilities. One group simply smuggles the drugs
from Colombia to Mexico. Another group controls the jungle labs. Yet another
deals with transportation of coca base from the fields to the labs.
There are well known links between the Colombian Marxists guerilla groups and
the cocaine trade. Guerillas protect the fields and the labs in remote zones
of Colombia in exchange for a large tax that the traffickers pay to the
organization. In turn, the Colombian right wing paramilitary groups are also
thought to control both fields, labs and some of the smuggling routes. This
situation has been disastrous for Colombia - both sides in an on-going civil
war are able to reap huge profits from the drug industry which are then turned
into guns for further fighting.
The DEA and the Colombian National police believe there are more than 300
active drug smuggling organizations in Colombia today. Cocaine is shipped to
every industrialized nation in the world and profits remain incredibly high.
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