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| 7/15/2002 12:00:00 AM

Illegal Drugs in Colombia: from illegal economic boom to social crisis

Francisco E. Thoumi

Illegal Drugs in Colombia: from illegal economic boom to social crisis Illegal Drugs in Colombia: from illegal economic boom to social crisis
1. Introduction

At the turn of the XXI century Colombian society is in a profound crisis in which illegal drugs play a very complex and important role. Colombia is the only country in the world where the three main plant based illegal drugs are produced in significant amounts. Colombians are involved in illegal drug production, international smuggling and marketing. In the 1980s Colombia became the largest cocaine producer in the world. During the 1990s it also became the largest coca grower nation. Furthermore, Colombia produces and supplies the lion? share of heroin consumed in the United States and also exports illegal marijuana.

Illegal drug production and trafficking in Colombia has signed the last thirty years of the country? history. In no other country the illegal drugs industry has had so dramatic social, political and economic effects. Illegal drugs have contributed greatly to changes in institutions and values, have indirectly conditioned the country? economic performance and have become a mayor element in the country? polity. Illegal drug revenues are a primary source of funds for left and right wing armed actors of the ambiguous war currently experienced in the country.

This short essay summarizes the development of the illegal drugs industry, attempts to identify its main effects on Colombia and the government? main reactions and policies in response to it.

2. Illegal drug industry development

a. Marijuana

Illegal drug production and trafficking started to grow in Colombia in the mid 1960s when marijuana crops developed in response to increases in domestic demand, which echoed American developments. Still, marijuana production and traffic did not however become important until the early 1970s. The 1960s growth in marijuana consumption in the United States and Europe triggered the development of large marijuana plantings in Mexico and Jamaica to supply them. Towards the end of the decade, the United States government promoted eradication programs in Mexico using paraquat, a herbicide known to have harmful health effects which drew away American consumers. This measure created strong incentives to find other marijuana growing sites and the marijuana crop was then displaced to Colombia.

Marijuana grew mainly in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on Colombia's Caribbean coast. At the beginning, American smugglers sought Colombian suppliers. Some local and American entrepreneurs provided seeds to poor peasants from whom they obtained the marijuana to be sold to the Americans. After a short time "Colombians seized the opportunity offered by the new market, and rapidly replaced the Americans organizing production to become to become marijuana exporters, but Americans retained marketing control" (Thoumi, 1995: 126). News about the good marijuana business spread rapidly and by the late 1970s marijuana plantings had appeared in several other regions; particularly in isolated recently settled areas of the country (Ruiz-Hern?ndez, 1979).

Marijuana exporting organizations were relatively simple. The peasants produced for a local exporter who controlled and/or owned one or a few landing strips or a port and negotiated with the American importer. Due to the lack of land titling and the very rudimentary and uncompetitive capital markets, the exporter frequently provided crop financing (Ru?z-Hern?ndez 1979: 140). Most peasants in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta had roots in that area and many of them retired from the illegal business after a couple of successful crops provided them with enough capital to maintain a satisfactory living standard growing legal crops (Ibiden).

The illegal marijuana boom started to decline in 1978 victim to several external forces. In late 1978 the United States government questioned President Turbay? s anti-drug credentials because of possible links between traffickers and some of his close political supporters. In response, the Colombian government engaged in an aggressive manual eradication campaign, confiscated boats and airplanes and destroyed some of the marijuana processing equipment (Thoumi, 1995: chap. 3). By that time, marijuana production in the United States had grown substantially after the development of the more potent "sin semilla" variety.

These developments made the marijuana business less attractive, but they did not destroy it. Moreover, marijuana had infused Colombian entrepreneurs with the awareness of other potential illegal sources of wealth. Methaqualone began to be produced or imported and then exported jointly with marijuana (Ru?z-Hern?ndez, 1979: 180).

Marijuana did not disappear but as the cocaine industry developed, the policy focus shifted away from it. This changed in May 1984 after Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara-Bonilla was assassinated and President Betancur used aerial spraying against marijuana plantings. Traffickers' response to fumigation was to shift the location of marijuana plantings to locations characterized by lack of State presence and a very high level of violence. In several of these regions guerrilla organizations rooted out the bullies, established order and gained peasants' support (Vargas, 1994). Marijuana eradication campaigns continued during the 1980s with American support, and by 1990 marijuana plantings were relatively marginal in Colombia (United States Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, 1992: 104). Uribe (1997) concluded that in the mid-1990s there were about 6,000 hectares planted with marijuana concentrated in six regions of the country used to satisfy mostly the domestic demand.

c. Coca and Cocaine

Cocaine is a more appealing trafficking drug than marijuana because it has much higher value to weight and volume ratios and coca cannot be produced in Europe or the United States, except in a few areas in Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Guam. To grow coca does not require special skills; the plant is very hardy and fits very well in fragile tropical soils and cocaine manufacturing is a simple process.

In the mid-1970s, illegal entrepreneurs began to export small quantities of cocaine to the United States. Very high profits fast allowed the business to become self-financing and expand and induced Colombians to develop stable routes and links with coca paste suppliers from Bolivia and Peru, with suppliers of chemical inputs to refine cocaine and the development of transportation systems to make large shipments and distribution networks, especially in the United States. The large number of Colombian immigrants facilitated this. The growth of the illegal business promoted the development of increasingly sophisticated money-laundering systems enabled in part, by the large and complex contraband networks used to import many goods into Colombia.

The illegal traffic was a strong incentive for the development of coca plantings in Colombia which appeared as a backward linkage of the cocaine trade during the mid-1970s (Thoumi, 1995: chap. 3). By 1987 Colombia produced 11 percent of the world? coca crop (Sarmiento, 1990: 69-70). Coca's production has had an upward, albeit unstable, long-term trend. Coca prices have fallen in the long run and at times, when the government has intensified its anti-drug fight against the "cartels," they have collapsed generating deep depressions in coca growing regions because of the disruption of coca leaf demand.

During the XX Century Colombian suffered several internal conflict episodes that forced significant domestic peasant displacements. Coca plantings in Colombia developed almost exclusively in areas recently settled by displaced peasants where the State has a weak, if any, presence. These regions are isolated and distant from the main economic centers of the country.

During the 1990s coca plantings exploded in Colombia. In 1991 that Colombia was the third largest coca-growing nation with 18,8 percent of the Andean countries?coca acreage but produced only 13,7 percent of the coca leaf volume (Thoumi, 1995: chap. 3). In 1995 there were 80,000 hectares of coca in Colombia (Uribe, 1997), more than double the 1990 figure. The increase continued during the late 1990s reaching some 120,000 to 150,000 hectares by 2000. This coupled with substantial declines in the area cultivated in Peru and Bolivia turned Colombia into the largest coca producing country in the world. Furthermore, cocaine yields increased significantly as growers and refiners adopted important technological advances (Uribe, 1997).

Several factors should be mentioned as contributors to the 1990s coca boom. First, the Fujimori administration, with American support, developed an illegal flight interdiction program that dried up coca paste supply to Colombia. Second, the collapse of the iron curtain weakened the finances of FARC guerrillas who sought alternative funding in the illegal industry. Third, paramilitary and guerrillas found useful to promote illegal plantings to develop and keep peasant support in the areas they controlled.

The coca boom incorporated a complex set of new actors to the illegal industry. In coca growing areas guerrilla and paramilitary groups substitute for the State imposing a very authoritarian regime, defining and applying their own laws and regulations, and providing education, police, and civil justice to solve conflicts among the population. In exchange, these groups charge coca production and cocaine export taxes (Uribe, 1997, Vargas, 1999). Other actors include long time settlers, who moved to the region to follow their farmer vocations, produce mainly foodstuffs and devote a small part of their land to coca. Recent settlers who devote most of their efforts to produce coca paste but who also devote some of their land to coca. Finally, recent migrants who arrive to the region to grow coca (Gonz?lez-Arias, 1998: 52-53). There are also commercial farmers with large plantings between 25 and 200 hectares who have direct links with traffickers; many of them own laboratories. Most workers in these farms are "raspachines" who pick coca leaves and help in the manufacturing process. Gonz?lez-Arias (1998) argues that this is a heterogeneous group made up of displaced peasants, former rural hired workers and pickers who came from regions that produce coffee or from modern agriculture crops and who expect to settle in coca growing regions and transient "raspachines" who expect to make some money before returning to their places of origin.

Until recently coca was processed into paste by peasants themselves and "chichipatos" who gather paste to sell in small quantities to "traquetos". These furnished the links to trafficking organizations (Gonz?lez-Arias, 1998: 53). There is also a group of "parachuters" who do not live in the region, and fly small planes to come in and out. They bring large amounts of cash (pesos or dollars) and buy big quantities of cocaine from the large "factories" and "traquetos."

In late 1998 the Pastrana administration granted the FARC guerrilla control over a large part of the country where coca plantings were widespread. To a large extent the guerrillas have substituted the "chichipatos" and "traquetos" and have profited from selling to trafficking organizations. A similar situation has developed in paramilitary controlled coca regions. While illegal drugs are a main source of funds for these groups, the involvement in international drug trafficking is impossible to determine at the time.

The illegal industry has also generated a strong illicit chemical input and arms trade. These products are extremely hard to control. Besides, once the industry establishes export smuggling capabilities, it also can import many products using many of the same smuggling systems.

c. Poppy, opium and heroin

Poppy cultivation was first detected in Colombia in 1986. Available evidence indicates that traffickers who distributed seeds and guaranteed crop purchases to traditional peasants in minifundia high-altitude regions promoted poppy plantings. Many of these peasants belong to Indian communities. Poppy plantings spread quickly over many areas of the Colombian Andes (Vargas and Barrag?n, 1995). In traditional Indian areas poppy has increased peasants' incomes but has created conflicts over payments, misunderstandings about business transactions, and has attracted undesirable outsiders to the growing areas where violence has increased (Vargas and Barrag?n, 1995). These developments have disrupted communities and have challenged their ancestral authority structures. In these communities many prominent elders support eradication negotiations.

Poppy has also attracted non-Indian migrants to high altitude unsettled regions and has been a main cause of high altitude old primary forest destruction. Guerrilla presence has also increased in poppy growing regions. Poppy grows in "commercial" and "peasant" plantings (Uribe, 1997). The commercial ones are generally in "vacant" government lands, growers use modern techniques, fertilizers, herbicides and fungicides, many of which are sold by drug buyers. These generally do not exceed a total of five hectares divided in several small plots to avoid detection. Commercial plantings employ hired labor while. Peasant plantings employ only family labor, use less sophisticated production techniques and are less profitable.

Traffickers do not buy opium in Colombia because they cannot guarantee purity. Instead, morphine base is refined near poppy plantings where it is sold to traffickers (Uribe, 1997). Estimates of poppy, morphine and heroin production are very weak partly because poppy is a short cycle crop. Several estimates (Uribe, 1997, Vargas, 1999) show poppy plantings between 6,000 and 20,000 hectares during the 1990s. In any case, these are sufficient to supply a significant share of the U.S. heroin demand.

d. "Cartels", marketing networks, guerrillas and paramilitary

Criminal networks are in constant flux to avoid detection. They continuously seek new routes, sources of chemical inputs, ways to disguise exports, and channels to influence politicians. High profits and low barriers to entry continuously attract independent operators that spring up at various stages of the business.

Marijuana development did not result in complex business enterprises. These came to life with cocaine that started as a small-scale artisan activity but quickly became a sophisticated business activity. This was the result of a more elaborated production process, the need to import unrefined cocaine from other countries and the greater profit incentives. The development of large-scale smuggling methods increased potential gains dramatically and induced the formation of "cartels" or export syndicates.

These export syndicates were organized to spread risk and guarantee profits. They

coordinated the Colombian cocaine industry. They sent coca paste and cocaine base buyers to Bolivia and Peru who organized shipments to Colombia, established laboratories to refine cocaine or sub-contracted that process, organized the illegal exports from Colombia and the wholesale of the product in the United States and other markets. The extremely high profits of the cocaine business induced Colombians to participate in all stages of the cocaine industry, including its distribution in the United States where the large number of Colombian immigrants facilitated the establishment of distribution networks. This development was also facilitated by the proclivity of Colombians to use violence against other smuggling organizations. Violence was also instrumental in deterring the development of export syndicates in Bolivia and Peru from competing with Colombians.

The large profits generated by the illegal industry also required the development of sophisticated money laundering systems. Rapid wealth acquisition, furthermore, made it impossible for successful exporters not to be noticed. Their high notoriety increased their need for a social support network to protect their business, illegal profits and accumulated capital. One of the early strategies for social support was to let wealthy Colombians buy shares in a cocaine shipment, under a system known as "la apuntada" (Krauthausen and Sarmiento, 1991: 74).

The illegal drug industry comprised peasants, chemists, various types of suppliers, purchasers and intermediaries, pilots, lawyers, financial and tax advisers, enforcers, bodyguards, front men ("testaferros") and smugglers that help launder profits. They were tied to the central "cartels" in different ways. Some were directly part of the "cartels", but many were independent sub-contractors loosely tied to them. The network also included politicians, police, guerrillas, paramilitaries, individual army members, public employees, bankers, loyal relatives, friends, childhood friends, and others. The social support network provides protection to the illegal industry, mostly at a price, and constitutes the main channel through which the illegal industry penetrated and corrupted social institutions. Through this network, illegal income was distributed to the rest of society and forged strong loyalties within the illegal industry.

During the 1980s the Medell?n and Cali "cartels" gained notoriety in international cocaine markets. In reality, these were not truly cartels with the capacity to exclude and control production but rather were syndicates that improved the efficiency of distribution. Smaller syndicates remained in the shadow of the two main ones. These varied from relatively large to "mom and pop" organizations that exported small quantities. Most information about export organizations focuses on the Medellín and Cali "cartels" and little is known about the rest.

During the 1990s the Colombian illegal drugs industry experienced significant structural alterations in response to changes in demand or government policies. First, cocaine demand in the United States stagnated while cocaine production increased. The resulting lower prices encouraged traffickers to search for new markets and products. Trafficking organizations became more international and links were established between Colombian and European criminal organizations (Clawson and Lee III, 1996: 62-90). Second, the United States increased interdiction efforts in the Caribbean led to a routing shift to Mexico and the development of links between Colombian and Mexican traffickers. The latter increased their market share at the expense of the former. Third, after the 1989 assassination of the leading presidential candidate Luis Carlos Gal?n, the Barco and Gaviria governments followed a "war against narco-terrorism" that destroyed the Medellín "cartel." Pressured by the United States, the following Samper government fought the Cali "cartel" and incarcerated all its leaders. Fourth, as the two large "cartels" were weakened, a large number of smaller trafficking organizations sprouted up. These have followed low profile strategies, are led by more educated Colombians and are more difficult to track down. Fifth, these smaller organizations are also functional for heroin smuggling. Heroin has a substantially higher price per kilo than cocaine and its volume demand in the US is much smaller. These two factors make heroin an ideal trafficking drug for small criminal organizations. Seventh, coca and poppy planting boomed. This added new actors and complexity to the drug industry, particularly paramilitary and guerrilla organizations that use illegal drugs as a main funding source.

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