“ The international drug trade poisons people, breeds violence, tears at the moral fabric of our society. We must intensify action against the cartels and the destruction of drug crops. And we, in consumer nations like the United States must decrease demand for drugs”. (Bill Clinton address to the United Nations general assembly on the occasion of the UN’s 50th anniversary/ Oct 1995) The traffic of drugs is a very complex subject which some of us do not understand. In order for us to understand this business and why and how Colombia became the world’s most famous country known for the empire created around the drug trading industry; we must look back at the origins of drug trafficking to understand how it grew in a poor country and a corrupt society in which money controlled almost everything and everyone.
Those on whom money had no effect were probably killed. It was the socio-economic conditions of the country, the poverty, and the desire for easy-money which turned Colombia into an excellent location for the narco industry to develop and rule. The purpose of this report is no other than to analyze how? and especially why? Colombia was drowned into the narco world and how the drug lords almost ruled the country. We must look at Colombian history to understand what the country was going through and how the illegal business evolved in a country in which money became the most important thing. This report will try to prove that it was the conditions- both social and economic- of Colombia such as poverty due to unemployment and inflation and social inequalities; which led to the appearance and flourishing of drug traffic.
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I’ve used as sources two books about the subject, a review by a university professor, articles from magazines, and information found on the internet. Throughout the report quotations from a recent interview with Jorge Ochoa, who is a former member of the Medellin cartel, who quit the business after 5 years in jail, will be used. Despite the fact that since ancient times cocaine and marijuana had been grown on Colombian soil, its use was limited to Indian communities, small marginal groups and certain hand-crafting jobs such as wood-work. When peace organizations entered the nation with clear ideological orientations with the objective of deviating the youth from the ideas of the recent Cuban revolution they discovered Colombian marijuana which they baptized with suggestive names such as ‘Colombian Gold’. They became addicts and slowly became distributors by taking it back to North America and spreading it to their friends and relatives. This way the first forms of distribution began, controlled by American citizens.
At the same time a major conflict was taking place in Vietnam, where finally United States troops entered a major scale war that lasted almost 10 years. It has been said that the U.S army drafted more than 10 million young Americans and at some point of the conflict they were sent to fight a very un-popular war. In Vietnam, this young generation of Americans was exposed to the atrocities of war, and their bodies and minds were submitted to unimaginable things which made them suffer and feel lonely, used, and abandoned. This leads them to experiment with an Asian herb called “hashish” which ‘doped’ them and made them forget about what they were going through. When these Americans returned to their country completely devastated and horrified after watching thousand of their friends and fellow countrymen die; they began searching for similar drugs like the Asian hashish they’d tried in Vietnam across the Mexican border.
Marijuana appeared and it quickly began being smoked by young Americans. Along with the Vietnam War came the hippie peace movement, which slowly became an excuse and a synonym for smoking marijuana. Mexico was the initial place where marijuana was sold to Americans because of its location, which allowed distributors to smuggle the drug easily and at low cost into the United States. However, consumers soon discovered a more powerful species found in Colombia where the herb was also found in enormous quantities, which meant low costs and a more powerful product. “The herb of Colombia was to the world of marijuana what gold had been to capitalism”. From the book: KILLING PABLO by Mark Bowden. It didn’t take long for cocaine to enter the scene. By 1978 warnings about the possible decay or fall of the herb’s empire were heard. American consumers were protesting about the mixture of other similar plants with marijuana to reduce the costs.
During this period of time, the demand for the most desired blend of the drug the “punto Rojo” or “Santa Marta gold” began to fall because of two factors: the loss of quality, and the appearance of a new product easier to transport and with higher utilities: 1 kilo of cocaine got to cost almost the same as a cargo ship loaded with marihuana. “They were growing marijuana in the United States, so then there’s no need for them to receive any marijuana. So the business of cocaine was very small. It was very small. And then, little by little, it became more important than the marijuana business.” (former member of the Medellin cartel Jorge Ochoa in a recent interview). 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 Cocaine and razor Labeled plants of marijuana.
At the end of the 60’s Colombia was a country with no drug trafficking but with socio-political unrest with the presence of leftist’s guerrillas trying to echo Fidel’s Castro Cuban’s revolution. The cocaine business attracted the attention of many and was carried with success in different countries around the world especially in South American countries. Colombia wasn’t the exception and narco-traffic entered the country developing into an empire of evil which corrupted the state and introduced billions of dollars to the country. There is no right answer to why this business had such success in Colombia. The truth is that the business appeared and developed around an environment, the social and economic conditions of Colombia which came from hundreds of years before led to the appearance of illegal crops due to the opportunity they represented to poor families living in towns and farmland.
Violence, poverty, and social inequality. Colombia was a very violent country which after the death of the political leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948 entered a very dark period of violence in which over 300 000 people died. This period was known as ‘La violencia ’. Horrid acts of murders were committed constantly in Colombian towns and villages. In addition, the country was consumed in poverty due to inflation and unemployment which were very high. Villagers began moving to the cities running from violence, this left a considerable number of people without work living in cities were they didn’t know how to do anything really. They’d lived all of their lives dedicated to agriculture, they became useless and poor in the cities. Furthermore, Colombia has an incredible social inequality. All the land of the country in the late ’60s was owned by a privileged 6%.
This 6% is represented by the social ‘elite’, people who receive refined education, lived in luxurious houses with all the commodities, and in the majority of the cases have political power or influence. They own local newspapers, magazines, industries, etc… This while the rest of the population is extremely lucky if they receive education at all. Nowadays there still are a lot of places in Colombia where houses do not have running water, there is no education, malnutrition is a constant, and children are used as workers by their parents when they aren’t even teenagers. Only 5% of the children that managed to enter primary school were fortunate enough to finish high school, and only 20% of the population of the time had some sort of social security. All these factors made Colombia fertile ground for the phenomenon of drug trafficking, violence, corruption, and disruption of social and moral values. Therefore we can affirm that the traffic business was a product of the time and the place.
It was in these deplorable social conditions that drug traffic entered the scene received by a number of men who wanted better conditions for their people. Most of the important traffickers belonged to the lower classes and hated the rich elite which monopolized national industry. Narcos also had great political interest and did social works in their home-cities to gain acceptance from the people. “Pablo Escobar had built over 60 football fields over Medellin for the people of poor sectors to enjoy, around 40 of those fields had their own lighting service in case anyone wished to use them at night” In fact, some of them were cherished in their cities. Pablo Escobar was not the only drug lord who sat in the congress in Bogotá. In fact, a lot of them worked for state organizations.
Poor Colombian families who grew the coca plant did it because they really had no choice. If they accepted to work for drug lords, besides receiving decent amounts of money which enabled them to maintain their families, they also received protection. This protection allowed them to return – or to stay- in their own villages without fear of possible violent attacks by delinquent groups. Peasants that did not want to grow the cocaine plant, had to grow other kind of crops like corn, banana, potatoes, amongst others, and face the problem that it was very difficult for them to market their products and make an adequate profit from them. When they saw and compared the earnings of the neighbors who were in the cocaine business it didn’t take long for them to realize which was the crop to grow on the next season. This way the number of acres used to grow the coca plant increased significantly over the years.
Political corruption. Businessmen from the coastal region and low-class ‘guajiros’ entered the business seduced by its high profitability, the low costs and because it was easy for them due to the lack of control and interest that the state showed towards narcotics at that time. When sporadically the local authorities imposed controls over the areas, they were very easily ‘bribed’ by drug lords because authorities were so easily corrupted due to the poverty which consumed the country. Policemen didn’t care what those people were doing as long as they got paid to keep their silence. Average policemen didn’t have significant motivation to denounce the activities which were taking place. If they got the attention of the higher staff the best they could get for it would be some special police mentions or medals. Although they are important mentions and would help their careers; the truth is that medals don’t feed families. They’d rather keep their low profile and receive extra money for themselves and their families.
The influence of drug traffickers in Colombian society reached up the highest levels. Presidential campaigns of 3 ex-presidents were financed by narcos (Alfonso Lopez Michelsen 1978-1982 Belisario Betancur 1982-1986 and Ernesto Samper 1994-1998). During the ’80s The Colombian cartels gave huge sums of money to senators, congressmen, judges, and politicians to vote against the extradition treaty. This treaty was imposed at the time and it allowed US authorities to take people who’d committed drug-related crimes in the United States to imprison them and judge them. This scared drug lords because they knew that out of Colombia they’d have no influence and their money wouldn’t save them. The narcos knew everything that happened.
Those who agreed with extradition were sent letters to ‘persuade them to disagree’. They’d first offer them considerable amounts of money; if that didn’t work they’d threaten them by telling them facts they knew about their lives and routine. In one case a journalist who insisted on the extradition of drug lords received an anonymous call from a man, describing in detail the journey her 10-year-old son took every day after school. Extradition was abolished representing a major victory of narcos over the state, at that time narcos almost managed the country. If somebody was brave enough to defy their power they probably died. The politician didn’t even try to talk about applying restrictions, it was too dangerous.
Consumers. The single largest marketplace for illegal drugs continues to be the United States. Although the market has decreased dramatically since the intensive anti-narcotic efforts in the mid-’80s, close to thirteen million Americans still think it is ok to occasionally buy a gram of cocaine, or a quarter ounce of weed to party with their friends on weekends. A hard core group estimated at between 5 and 6 million have more serious drug habits and may spend $100-$500 dollars a week on purchasing their drugs. These two groups – hard core users and casual users – spend approximately $60 billion dollars a year, according to U.S. government estimates. Globalization reached organized crime over the last decade and now is integral to its most profitable business — the international narcotics traffic. Once a regional problem involving a customer base of a few million, and barely a billion dollars in sales, the illegal drug industry is now a worldwide enterprise with tens of millions of hard core consumers spending hundreds of billions on opiates, cocaine and amphetamines, and marijuana, as well as other drugs.
What keeps the business rolling? What keeps the drug industry going is its huge profit margins. Producing drugs is a very cheap process. Like any commodities business the closer you are to the source the cheaper the product. Processed cocaine is available in Colombia for $1500 dollars per kilo and sold on the streets of America for as much as $66,000 a kilo (retail). No agriculture-based commodities industry in the world operates on the same price differentials as cocaine and heroin, while requiring relatively little in the way of expertise. “The average drug trafficking organization, meaning from Medellin to the streets of New York, could afford to lose 90% of its profit and still be profitable,” says Robert Stutman, a former DEA Agent. “Now think of the analogy. GM builds a million Chevrolets a year. Doesn’t sell 900,000 of them and still comes out profitable. That is a hell of a business, man. That is the dope business.”
During the 1980s, while other Latin American nations faced major recessions, the influx of billions of dollars in drug proceeds helped keep Colombia out of trouble. It is difficult to say how much money came into the country. At least 6% of the economy is thought to be directly involved in the narcotics business, with a minimum of $5 billion in profits per year. “From a purely economic sense, it’s good for any country,” says Passic. “But after a while, what you create are systems that are outside of the formal channels. You can’t be taxed. You destroy jobs. I think there was the realization that U.S. drug money actually was hurting Colombia’s economy. It was funding the extremist groups, the purchase of weapons and the other bad things that go along with it.”
Colombia today. 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 deal 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. “I think it’s a war that’s very uneven because while there is a demand, there will always be a supply. They can put as many controls as they want. The only way to get out of this is to legalize this business, the same way that the liquor business is legalized.” This phrase by Jorge Ochoa sums it all up. It is an established law of economics that as long as there is demand for a product there will always be someone willing and able to supply it. The U.S war on drugs, however, has been focused on the eradication of illegal crops in producing countries, spending billions of dollars without a significant result in sight. While the U.S has wasted an enormous amount of money trying to erase the production from the planet, countries in Europe have invested in educating their people using campaigns explaining the effects of drugs. It is perfectly clear that the methods which have been used are not the most effective.
Over 160.000 million dollars would’ve been lost in the United States during the year 2000 as a consequence of drug consumption and related problems. The 68,8% of that figure ( 110.000 million dollars) were lost in wages which people arrested for crimes related to the subject stopped receiving. Also of those people who died due to drug abuse. Almost 15.000 million were lost in health-care costs such as treatment for addicts and in prevention programs for the youth. The rest of the money was used fighting the demand for drugs in producing countries such as Colombia. While theses figures will most probably continue increasing and the US government intensifies action against production and breeds crime in poor producing countries, American youth goes on consuming these drugs.
However, the estimated death toll of cocaine is much lower than tobacco. Tobacco kills more people than sniffing cocaine or smoking marijuana but there is no action against producers. “The war on drugs as it’s being waged is a failure. They have partial success, but generally, it’s a failure, because it’s completely impossible to contain . . . as long as there’s the demand, as long as there is great profit in the business”. “I think that they are wrong in the manner they handle the problem. That problem has to be handled with legalization and with education. Educate the youth and legalize that. Because that way you can control it. But that idea of restraining it– they can’t control it.”