It isn’t rare for drug trafficking and politics to be connected in various ways, but nowhere is the link as direct and long-lasting as in Colombia. Fortunately, it seems the worst excesses are coming to an end.
For several decades, a lion’s share of cocaine consumed in the entire world was coming from a relatively small country located at the northern tip of South America. Illegal goods were finding their way across oceans and well guarded borders, with huge amounts of cash flowing in the opposite direction. Emboldened by the every growing pool of resources, traffickers rapidly expanded the manufacturing facilities located in remote areas and formed armed squads to defend them from seizure by the government and foreign agencies. The final result was a period in which human life was worth very little in the streets of Colombian towns, with drive-by shootings, explosions and kidnappings becoming so commonplace that nobody felt safe.
This era appears to be on its last legs, as the conflict between the Colombian government and various rebel groups controlling the coca-growing regions is petering out. News that President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his efforts to sign a peace deal are signaling a breakthrough on this front, bringing much needed stability to the country. This is a good occasion to sum up the Colombian drug war and describe the main players involved in it over the years.
Pablo Escobar – public enemy #1
Here is a name that doesn’t need any introductions, as Don Pablo is infamous around the world for his megalomaniac operations and heavy-handed tactics. Starting out as a small-time smuggler, this legendary criminal quickly built a drug empire tasked with supplying the U.S. market with high-purity cocaine produced in Colombia. During the 1970’s and 80’s, his business ascended to such heights that he was often listed as one of the wealthiest men in the world, while he also enjoyed the status of a folk hero among his poor compatriots for his frequent acts of charity and grandeur.
That couldn’t last forever, and Pablo’s Medellin Cartel soon came to the attention of American DEA, which worked alongside the Colombian police to bring down the undisputed king of coca. Thanks to non-stop killing of police officers and anyone else who dared to disagree, the international media started referring to Escobar as ‘narco-terrorist’ and in response, local authorities stepped up the pressure to resolve the growing problem.
Untold billions weren’t enough to save the notorious drug baron, as a broad coalition that included elements of the army, rival traffickers and US personnel worked to bring him to justice – or at least knock him out of the game. After several years of playing cat and mouse around the country, Escobar was killed by the authorities in 1993 during a raid on his hideout in Medellin, leaving behind a huge vacuum that many competitors desired to fill.
Passing of the torch
Golden days of Colombian drug trafficking may have gone with Pablo, but worldwide demand for cocaine wasn’t about to wane. The demise of Escobar’s network cleared the last remaining obstacle that prevented Cali Cartel from claiming the top spot in the international hierarchy. This group of criminals was just as ruthless and power-hungry as their colleagues from Medellin, but they avoided bloody displays of violence that guaranteed unwanted attention.
During the mid 90’s, cocaine business continued to flourish and open up new lucrative markets in Europe, filling the coffers of ‘Cali’s Gentlemen’ with amazing speed, although their rise was to be short-lived, as well. In 2004-05, two founders of the cartel, brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela were extradited to the United States to face trial, marking the official end of an enterprise that was worth estimated $ 7 billion a year at the peak of cartel’s operations.
While new cartels sprung up locally to continue the business (Norte Del Valle Cartel and Oficina De Envigado were the most prominent), cocaine trade eventually came to be dominated by Mexicans who at first served merely to facilitate transports into the U.S. Gradually, the balance of power shifted and organizations such as Sinaloa Cartel or Los Zetas started treating Colombians as suppliers of raw product while developing their own intricate distribution system across the United States that all but guaranteed tremendous financial strength. Absence of ultra-powerful criminal syndicates had a pacifying effect on Colombia, but only up to a certain point, since some parts of the country remained under control of criminal gangs and paramilitary units until recently.
Marxist guerillas and cocaine – a dangerous combination
One factor that prevented Colombian government from stomping out coca production is the presence of armed groups in the countryside. In fact, Marxist rebels known as FARC had been waging a guerilla war against central authorities since the 1960’s and while they never controlled major urban centers, they were quite successful in claiming vast areas of the jungle. At some point in the late 90’s or early 2000’s, an alliance between coca growers and left-wing revolutionaries was established, with guerillas providing security in exchange for a portion of the proceeds of the drug trade. Despite efforts from the security forces, FARC insurgency and coca production continued on a sizeable portion of Colombian territory, as drug money enabled the guerillas to fund weaponry and attract new recruits.
However, after many years of negotiations, on July 20th 2016, Colombian government signed a peace deal with the rebels, officially ending the struggle more than half century after it first started. While this might not be the end of coca farming in the country (huge number of poor peasants depend on the crop to survive), it removes an important obstacle for maintaining stability within Colombian borders. Actually, coca production fell for around 60% in the period 2000-2010, and major criminal organizations are increasingly moving to neighboring countries such as Venezuela or Bolivia where law enforcement pressures are not as intense. Colombia still remains the largest cocaine exporter in the world and it remains to be seen whether the latest peace deal can change this reality.
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