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Colombia's Role in International Drug Trafficking.

What is called "drug trafficking" in the U.S. is in fact a major, multifaceted, and global industry. Colombia's role in this industry has evolved over the past decades. In the 1970s, a boom in marijuana cultivation along Colombia's Atlantic Coast created a class of newly rich traffickers supplying the U.S. market. In the late 1970s, Colombia's new cartels, first in Medellin and then in Cali, expanded from marijuana to the processing and export of cocaine. Led by a small number of powerful drug kingpins, these family-based empires came to control a billion-dollar cocaine industry that processed coca grown primarily in Bolivia and Peru.

The power and violence of the drug industry came to permeate all facets of Colombian society, as signified by the saying "plata o plomo"--silver or lead--meaning "take the bribe or take a bullet." Drug lords achieved unprecedented political influence through threats, bribery, and political contributions. Drug violence also undermined Colombia's longstanding democracy, particularly during the 1980s, when the Medellin Cartel waged war on the Colombian government, killing hundreds of judges, police investigators, journalists, and public figures.

In addition to these targeted killings, paramilitary organizations--supported by drug traffickers--have carried out more generalized violence in rural areas against the civilian population. Since the early 1980s, drug traffickers, together with landowners and local military commanders, have formed paramilitary organizations to "clean" their territory of guerrillas and alleged guerrilla sympathizers and to protect land, cattle, and cocaine laboratories and strategic shipping routes. During the 1990s, ties between illicit drug operations and paramilitary organizations solidified, with several paramilitary chiefs becoming high-level traffickers. For instance, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has labeled paramilitary leader Carlos Castano a "major drug trafficker." Castano is the public face of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an umbrella group of regional paramilitary forces. Over the past three years, the AUC has orchestrated hundreds of massacres and selective assassinations throughout Colombia, in many cases with the support of local Colombian security forces. The U.S. State Department estimates that paramilitary forces are responsible for more than 70% of Colombia's human rights abuses.

Beginning in 1989 with the "Andean Strategy," U.S. funds, equipment, logistical support, and personnel from the DEA, the CIA, and other agencies have played a leading role in counternarcotics operations in Colombia. U.S.-assisted operations resulted in the killing of Pablo Escobar in 1993 and the jailing of the heads of the Cali Cartel in 1994. However, the breakup of the two largest cartels did not lead to a long-term decline in Colombian drug trafficking. These drug syndicates have since been replaced by smaller, more vertically integrated trafficking organizations whose nimble, independent traffickers are much more difficult to detect and infiltrate. These traffickers employ new and constantly changing shipping routes through Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean for moving cocaine and, increasingly, heroin.

In recent years, cultivation of both coca and poppies (used to make heroin) has expanded enormously in Colombia. Unlike in Peru and Bolivia, where peasants have for centuries grown and chewed the coca leaf (a mild stimulant, compared with the processed form, cocaine), in Colombia this practice was limited to a very few, small indigenous groups. While coca cultivation has recently declined in Peru and Bolivia due to U.S.-financed eradication programs, cultivation in Colombia increased 54% from 1996 to 1998, leaving overall Andean coca production constant.

Guerrilla groups active in areas of increasing coca cultivation, primarily the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have increasingly financed their activities by taxing coca crops and by protecting drug processing labs and other illicit installations. The dramatic increase in coca cultivation in southern Colombia, a FARC stronghold since the 1960s, coincided with the organization's strategic effort to increase its military capabilities in the mid-1990s. Although politicians in Washington frequently use the term "narcoguerrillas" to imply a complete integration of Colombia's drug cartels and guerrillas, there is no evidence that FARC and other insurgent groups are involved in the illicit industry's most lucrative stages: transshipment and sale of drugs on the international market. According to the DEA, "There is little to indicate that insurgent groups are trafficking in cocaine themselves."

Key Points

* Colombia's role in the international drug trade has shifted from a grower/exporter of marijuana in the 1970s to a processor/shipper of cocaine in the 1980s to a major grower/processor/transshipper of coca and heroin in the late 1990s.

* Colombia, one of Latin America's oldest democracies, has been wracked by drug violence and corruption.

* Profits from the illicit economy finance all sides of the armed conflict in Colombia: drug traffickers, paramilitary groups, the security forces, and guerrilla groups.
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Author:Tate, Winifred
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Date:Nov 11, 1999
Previous Article:Toward a New Foreign Policy.
Next Article:Problems With Current U.S. Policy.

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