Over the past four decades, Colombian drug traffickers have become a seemingly permanent fixture both within Colombian society and in international narcotics markets. They have come to control much of the nation’s land and, at least for a time, the country’s politics. In recent years, though drug trafficking organizations have changed form and adopted a lower profile, they are far from disappearing.
Colombia supplies roughly 800 tons of cocaine to world markets every year-more than 80 percent of the global supply — and a rising share of the world’s heroin. Most of this reaches traditional markets in the United States, but is increasingly finding outlets in Europe and Asia. A recent estimate by the Colombian comptroller general’s office stated that drug lords now hold title, most often through third parties, to nearly half of the country’s best farmland. Although their political influence appears to have peaked in the early 1990s, drug traffickers still undoubtedly influence the country’s politics and finances through money and power that the trade generates.
Considering the scope of the Colombian civil war, the importance of narcotics is only a few decades old, but it is significant. In the 1950s, Colombian smugglers developed two-way trade in contraband with the U.S. and Europe. Cuban immigrants who came to the U.S. in the wake of the Castro revolution were the first to develop the cocaine market, using Colombian supply, and by the ’60s and ’70s, Colombians were immigrating to the U.S. They soon set up their own cocaine and opiate rings, and then, with unprecedented violence, seized control of the trade from the Cubans. The cocaine trade grew immensely throughout the 1970s, with seizures by U.S. authorities rising from a few kilograms in the early ’70s, to tons by the end of the decade.
The burgeoning trade was dominated by the Medellín and Cali cartels, which imported coca from Peru and Bolivia and exported finished product to the United States. Combined, the two groups handled roughly 60 percent of the nation’s exports from the 1980s through the mid-1990s. Among the most infamous drug kingpins of this boom era was Pablo Escobar. Known both for his rule of the Medellín cartel and for his political ambitions, Escobar eventually acquired a seat in Colombia’s Congress, only to be ousted from office soon after by other legislators. He reacted violently, waging a brutal and ultimately successful campaign against laws allowing drug lords to be extradited to the United States. However, his personal war against the Colombian state-involving the intimidation, kidnapping, and assassination of political opponents, judges, and other officials-took a toll on his organization, and he was shot dead in 1993 by Colombian police.
Other drug lords, such as the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers who ruled the Cali cartel, were more diplomatic, playing the role of benign local businessmen, and funding political campaigns. These and other trends brought about a “narco-democracy” that peaked with the drug-funded election of President Ernesto Samper. Eventually, however, their involvement in politics at the national level provoked national outcry and pressure from the U.S. government leading to the brothers’ arrest in 1995.
Following the break-up of the Cali and Medellín cartels, the trend has been a shift toward smaller, fragmented organizations with lower public profiles and greater adaptability. The bulk of the trade is now handled by roughly one dozen core groups, drawing on hundreds of contractors and freelancers. Concurrently, coca cultivation has expanded radically within Colombia itself, making it the world’s leading producer. Some of the more profitable stages, such as retail marketing in the U.S., are now managed through partnerships with Mexican traffickers. Meanwhile, Colombian exports to Europe have grown, largely through Eastern European channels.
Although the “godfather” style drug lords have of late declined in prominence, one of the most influential legacies of the drug cartels lives on: Armed groups, whether guerrilla or paramilitary, still survive primarily on income from drugs. This has led to an international market that links the drug trade much more closely to arms dealers, contributing to violence in Colombia. Some reports of the ingenuity of the drug cartels are amazing. The discovery, in fall of 2000, of a half-constructed, highly sophisticated submarine that would likely have been able to carry 200 tons of cocaine across an ocean is one such example. A report released in 2004 states that scientists paid by Colombian drug lords developed a genetically modified coca plant that grows to twice the normal size, twice as quickly as naturally occurring plants, and produces cocaine that is about four times as pure.
During recent years, the Norte del Vallé cartel in southwest Colombia has become the most powerful and dangerous drug trafficking organization in the country, probably supplying 30 to 50 percent of the cocaine which enters the U.S. The government has activated an elite unit, similar to the one that helped to disband the Cali and Medellín cartels, to find the drug lords. Partly with U.S. support, the government has captured many of the cartel’s leaders and has seized properties worth roughly 100 million dollars. A June 3, 2005 report indicated that U.S.-backed police seized 115 million dollars worth of property from the alleged frontman for Diego Montoya’s powerful Norte del Vallé cartel. The seized property included luxury estates and bank accounts belonging to frontman Javier Baena-Velez and another of the cartel’s prominent drug traffickers. According to the same report, Diego Montoya is among the top ten most wanted persons by the FBI, which has offered a five million dollar reward for his capture.
Though much progress has been made in crippling Colombia’s drug trafficking business, analysts of the drug trade, citing the imperatives of supply and demand, insist that the business will continue to evolve in response to policing efforts.