drug wars

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The Colombian Cartels

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.


Rogriquez Gacha
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 Medellin cartel.

Carlos Lehder
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 bystanders.

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 brothers.

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 prison cells.


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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