The Cocaine Partnership

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Chapter 4
The Cocaine Partnership

The cocaine route that begins in the coca fields along the slopes of the Andes and ends five thousand miles away in thousands of American cities is a route built and maintained by an illicit and often violent cocaine partnership. Millions of workers are involved in producing and shipping the cocaine that eventually finds its way to still more millions of users in the United States. Most of those involved in this cocaine partnership will never meet although they all support this multibillion-dollar-a-year industry in many different ways and at many different levels.

All nations involved in the cocaine trade repudiate the drug. Yet that trade continues to flourish despite attempts to stop it. The success of this multinational illicit partnership in spite of Herculean efforts over three decades to destroy it is a complex and fascinating story.

Effects on the South American Economy

Ironically, the cocaine that causes or worsens poverty in the United States at the end of its journey north has provided an escape from poverty for more than a million South American peasants who participate in the cocaine trade in various ways. Before cocaine's popularity in the 1970s, most South American peasants earned a meager living growing such crops as coffee, bananas, citrus fruits, and various vegetables. Farmers were lucky if they made enough money to feed their families. During the 1970s, however, when consumption of cocaine, and demand for the drug, skyrocketed in the United States, the price of the drug escalated. The price for coca leaves also rose. Struggling farmers were quick to plant coca instead of traditional food crops to take advantage of this chance to escape poverty.

The lure of cocaine profits has created an economic and cultural revolution along the spine of the Andes. Cocaine's price escalation created a flood of hundreds of thousands of peasants from other regions inundating the fertile valleys of the Andes. Thirty years later, America's continuing demand for cocaine creates an incentive for peasants to abandon their fruit and coffee plantations, in favor of the more lucrative coca plants. And it is not just peasants who are attracted to the cocaine trade. Even educated professionals like schoolteachers have migrated into these

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prime valleys because their modest salaries are well below what they can make owning and harvesting coca bushes.

Although coca provides a comparatively generous living for these farmers, growing and harvesting an illegal crop for export to the United States requires greater sophistication and organization than they can provide. Coordinating the efforts of so many individuals requires the financial and organizational muscle of the cocaine cartels.


The three largest cocaine cartels, or groups organized to control coca production and limit competition, are the Medellín, Cali, and Cartagena, named after the major Colombian cities where several families control the cocaine trade, but each of the major cocaine-producing South American countries has several other cartels which compete to produce, manufacture, and export as much cocaine as possible to the United States and Europe.

Cartels are run and organized like any large corporation, though they operate illegally. They employ presidents or bosses, mid- and low-level managers, accountants, attorneys, security officers, and hundreds of thousands of general workers, all of whom support the growth, manufacture, distribution, and sale of cocaine. In a radio interview, a former member of the Medellín cartel gave the following response to the questions of how cartels are organized and how a person gets a job with one:

Well, you don't go to the Yellow Pages and look for "cartel employment." And in my case, I was fortunate and unfortunate to have grown up with Carlos Lehder, [whom] we all know as head of the Medellín cartel. But the Medellín cartel had heads of different departments. Carlos was in charge of transportation. He was a very good pilot himself, and he trained pilots and he trained them his way. The other sections are just like any other company. We have the Roprada, we have the people that have to do with the growing, with the cultivation of the coca leaf. And then we have another segment that goes into production, what we call the kitchens—las cocinas—in the jungles of Colombia and Bolivia. And then we have a segment that is more sophisticated and it has to do with Carlos and how we're going to load the airplanes, how we're going to take them, what aircraft we're going to purchase, how the planes are going to be fueled and refueled, and what routes are we going to take for a certain trip.24

Since the cocaine trade begins with and depends on the cultivation and harvesting of the coca leaf, the largest group that operates within the umbrella of a cartel is the coca farmers.

The Farmers

Cocaine's route to America begins in thousands of small villages high in the Andes. Farmers who grow and harvest coca are called cocaleros. They own and harvest, on average, five acres of coca bushes. One acre can support about five hundred bushes, each of which produces hundreds of leaves. Because coca grows so well in this environment, cocaleros harvest four to five crops a year. To keep up with the demand for cocaine in America and Europe, South American growers slashed and burned jungles to make way for more coca bushes and terraced the hillsides to maximize the amount of land available for cultivation. Despite this lucrative business, life for a coca grower is difficult. Claire Hargreaves, in her book Snowfields, interviews one coca farmer in Bolivia who describes the many obstacles to getting started:

Finding a plot wasn't easy because the Chapare [Valley] was already full. . . . I found one plot . . . but it was poor quality and often got flooded so the crops were destroyed. Next I found a place down the road from here, but you could only get to it by crossing several rivers by canoe. Often our provisions and clothes fell in the water on the way. I had to go to La Paz to sort out the papers giving the land titles. That was expensive: I had to pay the bus fare and, on top, bribes to the right people.25

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Once in the village, the men who carry the coca leaves to market, called zepes, or ants, seek out the middlemen, or pichicateros, who buy the leaves. Prices fluctuate with demand, like other commodities. When the price of coca leaves is high, cocaleros can bring in $5,000 annually per acre; when prices are low, a farmer might earn one-tenth that amount.

The cocaine trade has been a boon to many South American villagers who grow and harvest the coca plants, and this is one reason it has been so difficult to eliminate at its source. Some of the taxes paid by the farmers finds its way back into the village and helps pay for schools, roads, simple hospitals, and other community-related improvements. These tax revenues are in addition to money the local cartel bosses hand out to the village mayors. The bosses do this in return for the mayors' guarantee to provide protection from the police and to encourage farmers to increase coca production.

The Manufacturers

The picked leaves are bundled into one-hundred-pound bags and carried to the local village on the backs of the zepes. The zepes are paid $2 to $3 a day plus food along with as many coca leaves as they want for their own consumption. The zepes arrive at local villages at night to avoid being robbed by bandits working for rival cartels and to avoid corrupt police officers, who force them to pay a bribe to pass.

The pichicateros who have purchased the coca leaves turn them over to the cartel's manufacturers to begin the process of converting the leaves into cocaine. The first step is to dig pits where coca is extracted from the leaves.

Coca extraction requires a pit to be near a river because water is an important ingredient in the process. Peasant workers line the pit with sheets of plastic and fill it with a mixture of coca leaves, sulfuric acid, kerosene, water, and lime. A cartel chemist mixes these ingredients in carefully prescribed amounts. Next, young men called stompers get in the pits barefooted and for twelve to fourteen hours they stomp and smash the concoction into a paste. Six to ten stompers work a pit and each is paid between $10 and $15 a night. Hargreaves interviewed several stompers who describe the process:

You need something inside of you to help you bailar (dance). We call it dancing because the whole thing turns into kind of a ritual: we stomp the leaves to the rhythm of music which we play on a cassette-recorder. Sometimes it's local Bolivian music. I and my friends prefer American rock. . . . We keep ourselves going by chewing coca leaves all night. It stops you feeling hungry or thirsty while you are working and keeps you awake. Some guys smoke cocaine paste while they work. Their bosses give it to them as part of their payment: it keeps them in business if they can get the boys addicted. The boys fall into sort of a trance. . . . Usually we work 12-hour stints, but sometimes the boss tells us to carry on until the process is finished. By day we'd crash out in the jungle, if possible on a bamboo bed to avoid the snakes.26

The cartel bosses also employ hundreds of additional workers needed for making the paste. Zepes transport the chemicals and plastic, chemists mix the chemicals in the pits, lookouts keep the police away, and cooks feed the entire crew. The cartel bosses stay away from the actual production of the paste to avoid the possibility of arrest by drug agents or attack by assassins working for rival cartels. Instead, they hire young boys as runners to give instructions to the workers and to pay them.

Colombia's Cocaine Violence

Cocaine-related violence is not restricted to the streets of America. All of the South American countries involved in cocaine production experience related violence. Nowhere else, however, has the level of bombings and public shootings exceeded that in Colombia, as cartel drug lords duel for control of cocaine production and export. In 1993 Bob Edwards, host of National Public Radio's (NPR) Morning Edition, interviewed reporter David Welna about daily cocaine violence in Colombia. Welna reports:

On a Bogotá radio station, the news is about a 69-year-old newspaper publisher assassinated the night before in a provincial capital. As he got out of his car in front of his house, another car raced up and three gunmen opened fire. Five bullets killed the man instantly, while his wife and daughter looked on in horror. It's the kind of murder that makes news in Colombia for maybe a day or so, then gets lost under a new avalanche of killings. . . . There's no mystery about Colombia's violence. Colombia's prosecutor general recently blamed the government's eight-month-long failure to capture Pablo Escobar on three factors he said predominate in the country–incompetence, cowardice, and corruption. Meanwhile, Colombians are doing what they can to escape the violence. Some ride in bulletproof vehicles, others contract shotgun-toting security guards, and still others save money for a ticket to Miami.

These remote processing stations have the look of armed camps. Cartel armed guards thoroughly inspect all suspicious vehicles because the quantities of cocaine can easily add up to a ton and might be stolen or confiscated. Guards are primarily on the lookout for theft by rival cartels, although they also must be on guard to protect their contraband from corrupt police or from honest federal drug enforcement officers. These guards are inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. On a few occasions, innocent tourists wishing to visit rural villages have been suspected of being narcotic agents and have been shot and killed.

Some of these labs are capable of processing large amounts of cocaine and require a significant investment to set up and operate. To avoid capture by rivals or confiscation by police, labs are built on truck beds so they can be hidden deep into remote jungle sites and, if necessary, quickly moved.

When the stompers are done, the leaves are pressed and discarded and the remaining watery mixture, rich with the cocaine alkaloid, is siphoned off into square molds and dried until it forms a paste that is 40 percent pure cocaine. The paste, which is worth between $125 and $250 a pound, is transported by heavily armed guards to a central point run by the cartel for final processing, which involves treating the paste with hydrochloric acid and drying it to create cocaine powder.

Once the final processing is complete, the cocaine is packaged into one-kilogram bricks, each marked with a stamp identifying the cartel that produced it. Five hundred bricks are then placed on a small plane, which flies them to major cities where the highest-ranking cartel managers take charge of it. In its pure final form, the cocaine is priced at between $600 and $1,200 per pound.

The Distributors

The final step in the cocaine cartel's operation is to bring the cocaine bricks into the United States. This is by far the riskiest part of the business because it involves smuggling the cocaine past American customs agents. To move an estimated one thousand tons of cocaine annually requires a complex transportation strategy involving land, air, and sea operations.

The land route involves trucking the cocaine north through Central America and Mexico. The cartel bosses know that no government agency in any nation has the money or manpower to inspect all of the thousands of trucks that move north along the Pan American Highway every day. Truck caravans under heavy guard carry as much as fifteen tons of cocaine at a time. Eventually, these shipments of cocaine are broken down into myriad small quantities and smuggled across the border in shipments of manufactured goods and agricultural products, as well as in suitcases and hidden compartments in automobiles.

For sheer speed and efficiency, however, airplanes are the favored mode of transportation. The Medellín cartel, for example, maintains its own fleet of several dozen aircraft to fly cocaine into Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, California, Florida, Texas, and as far north as New York. In the early days, the aircraft were twin-engined propeller planes, but as demand and production increased, the cartel used intermediaries to buy used Boeing 727s from commercial airlines. The Medellín cartel mechanics removed the seats and were able to haul about eleven tons of cocaine per flight.

Flying directly into an American airport is a difficult and risky proposition. The aircraft must have proper documentation and clearances from American customs officials, which must be presented upon landing. To circumvent this problem, the cartels falsify documents. The easiest document to falsify is a flight plan showing that the craft has already landed once in a city within the United States. This meant that customs officials would have no reason to inspect the plane, since the plane would be presumed to have been already inspected. The necessary information for falsifying such documents is not readily available, so now the corrupting influence of the cartels' money is felt even in the United States. When a former member of the Medellín cartel was questioned about bribing American officials, he said:

There's a very sophisticated distribution system that had to deal with—would help with American authorities that were corrupt, to a certain point. I mean, there were people at the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] that facilitated flight routes and access to airports and information on—what do you call it?—altitudes and flight plans, so we could fly without radar detection [by] DEA or Customs. And, indeed, it was a very sophisticated process.27

To throw U.S. customs officials off guard, the cartels also ship cocaine by sea. Many tons of cocaine are concealed within legitimate bulk shipments of various products and loaded onto freighters bound for American ports. Here the determination of customs officials comes up against the ingenuity of the smugglers. The cartels have been known to pack bricks of cocaine inside welded automotive parts assembled in South America, within large plastic bags of bananas, or inside sealed decorative ceramic pots. One clever smuggler made what appeared to be handicraft products out of cocaine that had been disguised to look like plaster.

The cartels also use speedboats that travel at night between Caribbean ports and Florida coastal towns. Built small so they can travel fast, the speedboats are unable to carry more than five to eight hundred pounds. Nonetheless, they are very effective at eluding customs officials.

Cartels have gone to unusual lengths to smuggle cocaine. Following a drug seizure at a port in Colombia, the former boss of the Medellín cartel, Pablo Escobar, decided to build remote-controlled submarines to smuggle cocaine. Roberto Escobar, Pablo's brother, said in an interview with the British newspaper the Independent that "the subs were not big, but every two or three weeks, each could ship around 1200 kilos [2640 pounds]. We built two. When one was coming back, the other was going out. From departure to arrival, they were controlled electronically."28

Highly sophisticated technology such as submarines stand in stark contrast to the hundreds of thousands of coca farmers slogging through the damp valleys of the Andes. Yet both are elements in cocaine's route to the United States. Coordinating the efforts of simple peasant farmers with high-tech submarines can only be accomplished because the cartel bosses, known as cruceños, are willing to go to almost any lengths to keep the drug flowing in the pipeline.

Cartel Bosses

All control over the operations of cocaine production and distribution rests in the hands of the cartel bosses. A handful of cruceños manage and control the complex operations of the cartels as the cocaine moves from the coca fields of the Andes to the streets of America's large cities. Yet to all appearances, these individuals have little or no direct contact with the drugs they market. The cruceños live in large cities far from the jungles and valleys of the Andes.

Pablo Escobar

Of the many cocaine cartel bosses in South America, none is more notorious than Pablo Escobar, who headed the Medellín cartel from the beginning of the 1980s until a Colombian security force of three thousand agents tracked him down following an eighteen-month manhunt and killed him in 1993 at the age of forty-four.

Escobar was considered the godfather of the South American cocaine trade. During the 1980s, he controlled three-quarters of all cocaine produced and shipped to the United States, at the time amounting to about six hundred tons annually. Members of Escobar's cartel estimate that he personally made a million dollars a day. This fortune paid for a lavish lifestyle for himself and his family, his personal bodyguard of 250 loyal supporters, and bribes to police and government officials.

Escobar's reign of terror encompassed the deaths of hundreds of low-level rivals all the way up to top national officials. He is blamed for the deaths of three Colombian presidential candidates and eleven of the nation's supreme court justices. Escobar was so willing to use violence that he bombed an airliner, killing 107 passengers because 7 of his enemies were on board. During the last year of his life, he was blamed for the deaths of nearly 500 police and drug agents who were trying to capture him.

Despite the trail of murder that followed Escobar, thousands hailed him as a savior of the poor. Escobar grew up in poverty and gave large sums of money to help the poor. He was known among his loyal followers for building four hundred homes, providing millions of dollars for soccer fields and uniforms, and for providing employment for tens of thousands of poor Colombians. Many in the city of Medellín revered him as a modern-day Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

The governments of Colombia and the United States celebrated his death with the hope that it would reduce the production and flow of cocaine into the United States. To the common people of Medellín, however, his death represented the end of a man who helped them out of their poverty. Since his death, tens of thousands of Colombia's poor visit his tomb annually and rub his tombstone for good luck.

For all their detachment from the cocaine itself, the cruceños profit enormously from its sale. Some cruceños have been known to take in more than $1 billion a month. These cartel bosses enjoy lives of unrestrained opulence protected behind the walls of well-guarded multimillion-dollar palatial estates rivaling those of the world's wealthiest families. According to an interview with David Welna, a reporter in Colombia, "They send their children to Ivy League schools in the States, and people say they fancy themselves the Kennedys and Rockefellers of Latin America."29 Cartel bosses travel about their cities in the most expensive imported luxury cars on their way to the finest restaurants and resorts. Many own multiple homes in many of the world's major cities that serve as vacation estates and as potential safe havens should they ever need to take refuge from authorities in South America.

Although the life styles of the cruceños may appear glamorous, there is a deadly downside to this occupation. Cartel bosses have many enemies within rival cartels and are also subject to arrest by various law enforcement agencies. Wherever the bosses go, bodyguards armed with the latest fully automatic weapons accompany them. This same protection is extended to family members as well. In addition to bodyguards, family cars are custom fitted with bulletproof windows and doors, and the undercarriages are reinforced to withstand bomb blasts. To achieve the same sense of security in their estates, ten-foot-high walls enclose their houses and the latest electronic monitoring devices announce the presence of intruders.

Much of the wealth that these men acquire is spent on bribes to the police and to politicians in their home countries, and corruption surrounding the cocaine trade in many South American countries is rampant. Newspaper publishers are also occasionally paid off to ensure that the press does not report on the drug lords' activities, and should bribery fail, threats and occasional assassinations are considered standard business practices. Some of the money made by the cartel bosses goes to helping their friends and family members get elected to high political office to ensure their own protection. On rare occasions when all these measures fail and someone is arrested, they hire the best lawyers money can buy. By one tactic or another, most cruceños who are arrested avoid prison sentences.

American Dealers and Users

The final members of the cocaine "family" are the American dealers and users. When the cocaine arrives in America, it is sold to high-level distribution bosses in large metropolitan centers. At this point, most of the influence of the South American cocaine cartels ends. From this point forward, the bulk cocaine is parceled out to lower-level distribution networks that supply communities throughout America. Much of the American distribution is controlled by criminal organizations operating in the United States or in Mexico. (Mexico does not grow coca or manufacture cocaine, but since a great deal of the South American cocaine travels through Mexico on its way to America, Mexicans are involved in its smuggling and distribution.) According to a National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee (NNICC) report:

In recent years, this infrastructure [American cocaine traffickers] has become heavily dependent on the smuggling services of drug gangs operating from Mexico, which has enabled the drug gangs there to emerge as sophisticated and powerful international drug trafficking organizations within their own right. These powerful gangs, for example, have increased their involvement in the distribution of cocaine in the United States on their own initiative and in concert with the Colombian mafias.30

Once the cocaine reaches big cities, some is processed into crack and the rest is divided into one-ounce or one-gram packets. These small quantities of cocaine are easily shipped throughout the United States concealed in automobiles or in suitcases and loaded on buses or airplanes. Some is even packaged and shipped through the mail.

The high-level dealers are the ones who profit the most from the cocaine trade in the United States. The average cost of each one-kilogram brick of cocaine they purchase is about $23,000. They divide the brick into thirty-five one-ounce packets that they sell for about $1,200 each. Sometimes, to make even more profit, they will dilute, or "cut," the pure cocaine with harmless white powder substances such as baby powder to stretch the brick to forty-five one-ounce packets. On the street, each one-ounce pack is divided into twenty-eight one-gram packets, which sell for about $100 apiece.

Although the cocaine industry has raised the standard of living for hundreds of thousands of peasants in South America, the end result in America has been a virtual tidal wave of violence, misery, and poverty on American streets. America's law enforcement agencies, therefore, use a variety of strategies to seize cocaine before it finds it way to the users.

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The Cocaine Partnership

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