Maria Cristina Chirolla is a compelling woman in her mid-fifties: dazzling smile, coiffed hair, dark suit. It’s hard to believe there is a price on her head. We are in her office in the attorney general’s building in Bogotá, a bomb-proof concrete bunker. Chirolla is the head of the unit fighting money laundering — the estimated four billion pounds that Colombia’s drug traffickers make every year in profit.
Surrounded by aides and a press spokesman, she talks about their new policy of seizing the properties and businesses of drug traffickers. With generous aid and advice from the U.S., they are making real progress in the war on drugs, re-establishing the rule of law; this is the official story of success in the drugs war, a story questioned by the simple market fact that the price of drugs has done little but drop since the war began.
Glancing around, I see a familiar face over her desk. “Why do you have Kafka on the wall?” I ask. Chirolla smiles but goes on with her story. Half an hour after we leave, my producer Guillermo’s mobile rings. It is Chirolla inviting herself to dinner. She turns up at our hotel in jogging pants, the makeup gone. “I’ll just have a soup, I am on a diet.” Passionate, committed, and frightened — for three hours she overwhelms us with her honesty about the scale of the problem. “How can we destroy an industry that generates enough money to enable the drug cartels to have private armies? How do we fight people who can afford the best lawyers and financial advisers? For 25 years, billions of dollars have been laundered back into the legal economy at every level and we can no longer trace the difference.” She unravels the nightmare that is government in Colombia. You can trust no one. The traffickers have people everywhere from the very top to the very bottom — their money can bribe almost anyone. And if they cannot buy, they kill — a habit that has turned Colombia into one of the most dangerous places on earth. An assassin can be hired for 60 pounds a hit. When every kilo of cocaine sold on the streets of the U.S. has a 30,000-dollar profit margin, 60 pounds seems like not much to pay for a life.
We are filming Chirolla when she hears that two men have been caught planning to assassinate her. The hit should have taken place when we were with her, traveling on what was supposed to be a secret mission to raid the property of a trafficker. “Everything leaks here,” she moans. Days later she learns that a terrorist cell has been set up by drug traffickers to target her. The cell is based in an army officer’s club in Bogotá.
Why does she do the job? “Because Colombia needs honest people. It is so hypocritical: my country is seen as the world center of violence and corruption — but the money comes from a demand for drugs in the United States and Europe.” The price of her honesty is a life of almost constant fear. Once again, at the heart of the battle with cocaine is U.S. dollars.
Plan Colombia, the biggest U.S. aid package to any country outside the Middle East, has seen almost 3 billion dollars poured into largely military resources over the past five years. The plan’s initial aim was to destroy the cocaine industry at its source, as in Peru, but now an astute right-of-center Colombian government has persuaded President Bush to let them use the money in their long-running battle with the left-wing FARC guerrillas, on the grounds that they are involved in the cocaine trade. So the war on drugs is cleverly drawn into the war on terror. But the causes of Colombia’s civil war have nothing to do with drugs. The war has being going on for over half a century, and huge swathes of the country are outside government control. You cannot drive safely between most cities.
Rooted in the revolutionary politics of 50 years ago, the war is still described in terms of left and right. In most of the rest of Latin America such full-scale ideological conflicts died away with the Cold War. In Colombia cocaine money keeps that war alive. The various factions have taken over from the big cartels — the right-wing paramilitaries even more than the guerrillas. The paramilitaries are the real controllers of the drug trade and getting to meet them involves negotiating permission to enter their territory.
After a flight to the north and a long drive through glorious cattle country, we are greeted at a ranch by a local commander — code name Zero 8 — accompanied by his pet leopard. Zero 8 is from an educated landowning family. His brother, I learn later, is a senator in Colombia’s congress. Zero 8 won’t appear on camera but we are free to film the 300 armed troops parading on the football pitch. “We provide our 25,000 troops with proper pay and even holiday leave,” he says proudly. He reminisces about how he joined the paramilitaries to defend his family farm from the guerrillas. The paramilitaries are allies of the government, he argues, rooting out left-wing subversion. I recall the reports of massacres and murders of trade unionists that have been laid at their door.
After dark, their leader turns up, surrounded by Uzi-toting bodyguards. Salvatore Mancuso, wearing a white linen shirt, Rolex, revolver, and dangerous smile, is exactly how I imagined a major trafficker. While his subordinates are shy about their involvement with cocaine, Mancuso is not: ‘Seventy percent of our troops are in territories that we have taken from the guerrillas in which drug trafficking takes place — so 70 per cent of our money comes from our tax on drug trafficking.” Like Chirolla, Mancuso believes cocaine is a gringo problem visited on Colombians from outside. “If they did not demand it, we would not supply it.”
And supply it they do. Back with Maria Cristina Chirolla, we travel in a confiscated fast-boat powered by three 250 horsepower engines. The naval officer in charge describes how “this boat packed with cocaine leaves the Colombian coast worth 100,000 pounds and arrives in Mexico worth some 10 million”. He explains how planes hop at tree level across Central America and “of course there is the specially made submarine which is working a route up the Pacific coast”. It is made clear that the paramilitaries control these routes north.
Despite this, the government is now in peace talks with the paramilitaries. The Colombian congress invited Salvatore Mancuso to address them on the subject of the war against subversion. Under government protection, he turned up in his suit to address the Congress on his troops’ achievements. He did not mention drugs. Some of his men are now taking advantage of a new law giving a sort of amnesty — but none of the money made and few of the crimes committed have to be admitted. While a wanted drug trafficker addresses the Colombian Congress, and the U.S. administration claims Plan Colombia is a success, a million Colombians are displaced and the price of cocaine on Western streets stubbornly remains the same. That price is determined by supply. In his book COCAINE, Dominic Streatfield quotes the monetarist Milton Friedman: “I do not think you can eradicate demand. The lesson we have failed to learn is that prohibition never works. It makes things worse not better.”
Streatfield quotes the extraordinary statistics involved in fighting cocaine and drugs. Here are a couple: over the past 15 years, the U.S. has spent 220 billion dollars trying to stop its people getting hold of drugs. In the U.S. almost 20 percent of the prison population is inside for drugs offences. Thirty years of the war on drugs have achieved almost nothing except to make a few people fantastically rich, to arm our inner cities, to criminalise a generation of users, and to leave tens of thousands of Latin Americans dead. As our cocaine maker in Peru happily told us: “People want our cocaine because it is good and, for a while at least, makes them happy.”