Colombia as Drug Source

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Smuggling and the commerce in contraband have been a way of life in Colombia for nearly 500 years. Approximately 1,000 miles (1609 km) of largely unpatrolled Pacific and Caribbean coastline and vast tracts of mostly uninhabitable territoryranging from tropical jungles in the south, to rugged Andean mountain slopes in the east, to sparsely populated deserts in the northhave made Colombia a haven for smugglers of illegal Cocaine, Mari-Juana, and, most recently, Heroin. Violence, corruption, inadequate control by the central government over much of its territory, and an ineffective judicial system have hampered Colombia's drug-control efforts. Consequently, Colombian cocaine is the single largest supply of that illicit drug to be smuggled into the United States.

During the 1980s, despite positive law enforcement and crop-control programs, Colombian laboratories processed large volumes of (Coca Plant) (Erythroxylon coca ) into cocaine; by the 1990s, their sophisticated trafficking infrastructure had diversified into heroin production and distribution, adding to the already large Asian and Mexican supply in the United States. To reduce the level of violence and achieve peaceful coexistence throughout the country, the Colombian government offered a type of amnesty, or plea bargain, to major drug traffickers willing to surrender and cease their trafficking operations. However, by the late 1990s, the government had shifted its approach, employing the military and law enforcement to attack narcotics cultivation, processing, and trafficking.

Colombia has powerful, often violent, trafficking organizations based in the major urban areas of Medellin and Cali, as well as the oldest continuous political insurgency in the Western Hemisphere, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Although the extradition treaty with the United States is no longer constitutional, the Colombian government has implemented the strongest drug law enforcement efforts of any Andean country. In the 1990s, Colombia began efforts to eradicate its burgeoning crop of opium poppy (Papaver somniferum ), but met with little or no success. It also attempted to enhance the investigation of drug crimes through the development of a new code of criminal procedure; tougher chemical control; anti-money-laundering, asset-seizure, and evidence-sharing procedures.

Colombia was a signatory to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. It has signed but not yet ratified the 1988 U.N. Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Although money laundering is not illegal in Colombia, the government is actively tracking narcotics proceeds (e.g., exchanging tax information and writing tougher financial disclosure laws) to improve its drug-investigative capacity.


Proximity to the U.S. marketplace, remote and vast tracts of unpatrollable land, powerful criminal organizations, indigenous entrepreneurial spirit, and a long tradition of violence and smuggling make Colombia an ideal source for illegal drugs. Coca production rose dramatically in the 1990s as the governments of Bolivia and Peru pursed aggressive eradication programs. The U.S. government estimated that Colombian coca cultivation doubled between 1995 and 1999, constituting over two-thirds of the production in South America. Cultivation takes place in the Llanos (plains) region, which encompasses almost half of eastern Colombia. Heavy growth also occurs in the Caqueta, Guaviare, Putumayo, and Vaupes departments (counties or provinces), with evidence of crop expansion in the Bolivar department and in south and southwest Colombia. In addition, new, more potent strains of coca have been developed that reach maturity more quickly and yield more product in the cocaine conversion process.

Colombia's importance to the U.S. government's international narcotics control strategy lies in its role as the world's leading processor and distributor of cocaine hydrochloride (HCl)the cocaine salt (powder) that is sniffed or snortedand cocaine base, or Crack cocainethe rock or crystal that has been converted from cocaine HCl. Colombian cocaine-trafficking organizations are sophisticated and well-organized industries; they derive their strength from longtime control of cocaine laboratories and the smuggling routes to North America. Colombian traffickers operate a large number of base and HCl labsranging from small simple operations to large sophisticated complexes.


In the mid-to-late 1970s, the United States directed its international drug-control attention to eliminating the heroin and marijuana crossing our border at Mexico. As the U.S.-Mexican crackdown began to achieve positive results and the number of U.S. smokers of Mexican marijuana diminished, Colombian traffickers seized the opportunity to break into the lucrative U.S. drug market by smuggling large amounts of marijuana and small packages of cocaine. In the early 1980s, Florida became the destination of choice for smugglers because of its long coastlines, access to boats and planes, location in the Caribbean, and large Hispanic population; by 1986, Colombia supplied an estimated 80 percent of the cocaine HCl.

More than 150 Colombian drug groups organized loosely into autonomous business cartels in the two principal urban areas of ColombiaMedellin and Calirepresent one of the most important power centers. The government of Colombia and the roughly ten thousand members of the two antigovernment guerrilla groups called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) are also political forces there (Lee, 1989).

In controlling all stages of cocaine production, from cultivation to sale, Colombian traffickers have developed sometimes competitive, sometimes symbiotic, relationships with each other and with insurgent groups. The guerrillas benefit from the illicit drug trade by providing protection for the coca fields, laboratories, and storage facilities; they carry out kidnapping and terrorism to support the traffickers' aims. In return, the political insurgents "tax" the profits of the drug trade, thereby earning hard currency and occasionally extracting payment in weapons.

Elected in 1982, Colombia's President Belisario Betancur appointed a strong counternarcotics minister of justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. In 1984, Lara Bonilla ordered a police raid on a Medellin cartel laboratory complex in a remote area called Tranquilandia, which produced more than 3 tons of cocaine per month. The police seized some 15 tons (13.8 metric tons) of cocaine, several airplanes, a variety of arms, and chemicals essential to the processing of cocaine. One month later, the minister of justice was assassinated in the capital, Bogota. In retaliation, President Betancur signed the first extradition order for Carlos Lehder, the Medellin cartel's transportation czar. Lehder was extradited in 1987, convicted in a Florida federal court, and is serving a sentence of life plus 135 years in the United States.

Between 1984 and 1987, a total of fifteen drug traffickers were extradited to the United States. In 1984, 1988, and 1990, major traffickers met privately with senior Colombian politicians to discuss the possibility of a general amnesty and an end to extraditionin return for ceasing the violence, abandoning the cocaine business, and relinquishing the assets used in the industry (e.g., planes, laboratories, airstrips). Although the first three offers were rejected, in September 1990, the Gaviria administration gave the Extraditables the option of accepting reduced sentences and guarantees against extradition if they surrendered to the authorities, confessed their crimes, and offered up their assets.

Under President Vergilio Barco, 1986 to 1990, the violence throughout Colombia's countryside increased in response to the continuing extraditions. In the 1980s, the murders in Medellin, a city of two million inhabitants, increased ten-foldfrom seven hundred in 1980 to seven thousand by 1991due in part to a bounty of $300 offered by Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar in 1990 for every policeman killed. In August 1990, the populist politician Luis Carlos Galan, a presidential contender, was assassinated at a political rally because of his strong support for the extradition treaty and antidrug position. His murder mobilized the civilian population against the cartels and incensed Colombia's national police and military. Through a series of raids on cartel laboratories, the government began an unparalleled crackdown, culminating in the shooting of Medellin strongman Rodrigo Gacha and the destruction of one of their largest cocaine-processing centers.

The Cali cartel, which was less violent and less obtrusive than its Medellin counterpart, quickly began to move into the position vacated by the Medellin leaders, many of whom were either imprisoned or killed. However, by 1996 the Colombian government had broken up the Cali cartel through the arrest or surrender of its leaders.


Among the principal Andean Source Coun-Tries for coca, Colombia has become most committed to defeating the cocaine cartels, since they threaten to undermine its society. Colombians recognize and fear that the violence and corruption endemic to drug trafficking are harming their economy, political system, and society. By the late 1990s, the government sought international assistance to overcome the growing power of drug organizations.

Colombia's national police, the military, and the security forces successfully broke up the Medellin and Cali cartels. In 1989, with the assistance of U.S. technical and material support, they attacked and killed several mid-level Medellin traffickers, including Rodrigo Gacha. Colombia has also used the extradition to incarcerate or immobilize major traffickers. In late 1990, President Cesar Gaviria's offer of amnesty for major traffickers resulted in a decrease in violence and the surrender and imprisonment of five traffickers and one terroristincluding Pablo Escobar and the three Ochoa brothers (Jorge Luis, Juan David, and Fabio). The Medellin cartel lost its leader when Pablo Escobar was killed in a shoot-out in December 1993 after having escaped from prison. The Cali cartel met its demise in the mid-1990s.

As a signatory of the 1961, 1971, and 1988 U.N. International Narcotics Control Conventions, Colombia demonstrates its political commitment to immobilizing drug traffickers and eradicating coca, cannabis, and opium. In the early 1990s, the government created public-order courts and began to share evidence, reform its judiciary, and track substantial money flowsrequiring banks to keep records on cash transactions of over 10,000 U.S. dollars.

Despite these promising efforts, the shift of coca production from Bolivia and Peru to Columbia in the 1990s placed civil society in jeopardy. In addition, the destruction of the Medellin and Cali cartels has led to the proliferation of smaller, decentralized drug-trafficking organizations. These traffickers are primarily located near Cali and on the Caribbean North Coast. In addition, these drug organizations have the support of well-armed and well-organized guerrillas and paramilitary groups.

President Andres Pastrana, elected in 1998, formed a counterdrug joint task force with elements from all the military services and the national police. Pastrana proposed a comprehensive, integrated strategy called "Plan Columbia" to address the country's drug-related, economic, and social troubles. At a cost of over $7 billion, the United States agreed to fund a large part of the plan, which includes a massive eradication program and the interdiction of air transportation. United States military forces provide technical assistance and the United States has also supplied helicopters and airplanes. In 2000, the U.S. Congress approved over $1 billion in funds toward continued eradication.

(See also: Crop-Control Policies ; Drug Interdiction ; Foreign Policy and Drugs ; International Drug Supply Systems ; Source Countries for Illicit Drugs )


Bagley, B. M. (1988). Colombia and the war on drugs. Foreign Affairs (Fall), 70-92.

Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, U.S. De-Partment of State. (1991). International narcotics control strategy report (INCSR). Washington, DC: Author.

Craig, R. B. (1987). Illicit drug traffic: Implications for South American source countries. Journal of Inter-american and World Affairs, 29 (2), 1-34.

Gugliotta, G., & Leen, J. (1989). Kings of cocaine: Inside the Medellin cartel. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lee, R. W., III. (1991). Making the most of Colombia's drug negotiations. Orbis 35 (2), 235-252.

Lee, R. W., III. (1989). The white labyrinth. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2000). National Drug Control Strategy:2000 Annual Report. Washington, D.C.

James Van Wert

Revised by Frederick K. Grittner