Colombia has been a very unstable country for the past fifty years. Beginning in the
1960s Marxist guerilla groups formed. The two strongest groups called themselves the National
Liberation Army (ELN) and the other was the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC). Making things worse, in the 1970s drug trafficking became a huge problem for
Colombia. Drug cartels pretty much controlled the country starting in the mid-1970s. By the
1990s right-wing paramilitaries had formed. They were made mainly of drug traffickers and
landowners. The main paramilitary group called themselves the United Self Defense Forces of
Since the 1970s, Colombia has been home to some of the most violent and sophisticated
drug trafficking organizations in the world. What started as a small cocaine smuggling business
has, in the last thirty years, blossomed into an enormous multi-national cocaine empire. Starting
in the mid-1970s, marijuana traffickers in Colombia began exporting small quantities of cocaine
to the United States hidden in suitcases. â€œAt that point, cocaine could be processed for $1500 a
kilo in jungle labs and could be sold on the streets of America for as much as $50,000 a kiloâ€
Today, Colombia supplies up to 80 percent of the worldâ€™s cocaine, and about 70 percent
of the cocaine that enters the United States. â€œProduction has been steadily rising, it is up 20
percent in the past fifteen yearsâ€ (Grossman). Illegal crops remain, by far, the most lucrative of
all the agricultural products in Colombia. The narcotics industry accounts for about three
percent of Colombiaâ€™s gross domestic income.
The majority of the coca leaves are grown on large plantations in southern and central
Colombia, most of which are under the control of large drug cartels. â€œRecently, coca growers
have burned 2.4 million hectares of rain forest to clear for new areas of cultivationâ€ (Grossman).
Poor peasants are recruited to work the land and harvest illicit crops as their major source of
income. In other cases, the FARC forces farmers to pick coca fields.
With its convenient access to the Caribbean Sea, the Isthmus of Panama, and the Pacific
Ocean, Colombia is well equipped to serve as a major exporter of illicit drugs north towards the
U.S. Highly organized smuggling cartels based in cities like Cali, Medellin, and Bogota arrange
for the export of narcotics by the bulk, primarily to the United States.
Narcotics can be shipped from ports along South Americaâ€™s coastal regions or
transported via ground routes running through Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Traffickers use fishing vessels, commercial cargo ships and stealthier speed boats to smuggle
massive amounts of cocaine from Colombia to Central America, Mexico and several Caribbean
countries. From there they make their way to the U.S. mainland.
In the history of Colombian drug cartels there are two names that will most definitely be
acknowledged, the Medellin cartel and the Cali cartel. These are the most notorious groups of
drug traffickers in the history of Colombia, even perhaps in the world.
The Medellin cartel started off with six members. The leader of this group was Pablo
Escobar, the others were Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacho, and brothers Jorge, Fabio and Juan
â€œJose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacho had roots in Colombia's somewhat murky emerald trade.
The Ochoa brothers were from a well respected ranching and horsing family. And the violent
leader, Pablo Escobar, was a common street thief who masterminded the criminal enterprise that
became known as the Medellin cartelâ€ (pbs.org-Cartels).
The men from Medellin joined together with, marijuana smuggler, Carlos Lehder, who
convinced them that they could fly cocaine in small airplanes directly into the United States,
avoiding the need for countless suitcase trips. The large quantities and the growing appetite for
cocaine in the United States led to huge profits, which the cartel began re-investing into more
sophisticated labs, better airplanes and even an island in the Caribbean where the planes could
Violence was an integral part of the operations of the Medellin syndicate from the start.
As the organization grew in size, power and wealth, it also grew in ruthlessness and violence.
After first establishing their dominance on the South American side of the market, in 1978 and
1979 the Medellin drug bosses turned their attention to control the wholesale distribution in the
â€œAs the cartels consolidated control over a billion-dollar drug industry, their leaders
sought political power through legal and illegal means, all backed by violenceâ€ (Younger and
Rosin). â€œSeveral bought interests in local radio stations and newspapers. Others, like Pablo
Escobar, sought to create patron-client followings in the cities by handing out cash to the poor,
building low income housing in the slums or purchasing sports teams and constructing sports
stadiums. Lehder went as far as to create his own Latino Nationalist Party and to publicize his
hybrid political ideology through his newspaperâ€ (Country Studies). In 1982 Escobar was
actually elected as an alternate congressman on a Liberal Party slate in his home department of
Pablo Escobar was incredibly violent and his quest for power within the Colombian
government led to a stand-off between the cartel and the government. During the 1980s, the
cartel revolted against the governmentâ€™s threats to extradite the traffickers to the U.S.
To impose its will on the state, the cartel killed many government officials, police officials,
journalists, Supreme Court justices and even a leading presidential candidate named Luis Carlos
â€œOn March 10, 1984, in a major joint operation with the U.S. DEA, the Colombian
government captured 10 metric tons of cocaine and destroyed 101 coca-processing laboratories.
Six weeks later, Colombian Minister of Justice, Lara Bonilla was assassinated on the orders of
the Medellin traffickersâ€ (Youngers & Rosin).
â€œDuring this time, the term â€˜narco terrorismâ€™ was used to describe the actions of the
Medellin cartel. The Medellin cartel was not afraid of violent confrontation with the Colombian
government and did not hesitate to use indiscriminate violence to eliminate itâ€™s enemiesâ€
The many law enforcement efforts to topple the Medellin cartel were resulting in
numerous surrenders and arrests that eventually led to the cartel's demise. For example, in
December 1990, Fabio Ochoa surrendered to authorities near Medellin. Shortly, after, in
January 1991, Fabio Ochoa's brother, Jorge Luis, also turned himself into the Colombian
National Police (CNP). Also, in January 1991, the CNP killed David Ricardo Prisco Lopera,
Pablo Escobar's top assassin, along with his younger brother, Armando Alberto Prisco. â€œThe
Priscos were wanted for ordering the murders of 50 Medellin police officers, for several terrorist
bombings, and for nine assassinations, including that of the Colombian Justice Minister in 1984"
(DEA History Book). In February 1991, a third Ochoa brother, Juan David surrendered.
â€œLaw enforcement efforts were increasingly directed at Pablo Escobar, the kingpin of the
Medellin cartel. In June 1991, Escobar surrendered to authorities, and was put in Envigado
prison. In reality, Envigado prison protected, rather than incarcerated him. Escobar's period at
the prison was considered his "Golden Age," during which time he ran his drug empire without
fear of being hunted by the Colombian Government or assassinated by his rivalsâ€ (DEA History
In July 1992, Escobar "escaped" from Envigado prison in order to avoid being transferred
to a Bogota jail after it was confirmed that Escobar had ordered the murder of some 22 of his
own drug mafia associates.
For 17 months, Escobar was the target of the largest manhunt in Colombian history. In
December 1993, the CNP killed Escobar in a fire fight at a private residence in downtown
Medellin. Escobar's death, along with the surrender and arrest of the Ochoa brothers marked the
decline of the Medellin cartel.
Part of the downfall of the Medellin cartel was due to their main rivals in the Colombian
city of Cali, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers and Jose Santacruz Londono. When Medellin leader Pablo Escobar launched his terror campaign against the state in 1989, the Cali cartel
controlled only about 25 percent of the world cocaine trade. â€œBut in 1993, after the fall of the
Medellin cartel, the Cali controlled roughly 85 percent of the global cocaine trade. During this
time, Colombia drug trafficking groups were earning between $2 and $5 billion annuallyâ€
The Cali mafia had been formed in the early 1970s by Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela and
Jose Santacruz-Londono, and rose quietly alongside its violent rival, the Medellin Cartel.
â€œHaving observed the fate of the brutal and violent Medellin Cartel, the Cali leaders passed
themselves off as law-abiding businessmen, investing in their country's future, earning public
respect, and taking economic control of the Cali region. Because they operated in a less violent
manner, the government did not aggressively pursue them, thereby allowing the Cali mafia
leaders to operate and grow in wealth and power with virtual impunityâ€ (DEA History Book).
These Cali leaders ran an incredibly sophisticated, highly-structured drug trafficking
organization that was tightly controlled by its leaders in Cali. They hired internationally
renowned lawyers to study the movements of the DEA and the US prosecutors. They began
using technology as a tool for their business and hiring as well as training top engineers to design
communications equipment that could not be bugged.
The drug lords have deployed advanced communications encryption technologies that,
law enforcement officials concede, are all but unbreakable. They use the Web to camouflage the
movement of dirty money. They track the radar sweeps of drug surveillance planes to map out
gaps in coverage. They even use a fleet of submarines, mini-subs, and semi-submersibles to ferry
â€œAuthorities believe that the Cali Cartel purchased a Soviet sub in the early '90s, and that
its crew accidentally sank it off Colombia's Pacific coast during its first smuggling run, probably
because they lacked the 10 skilled people needed to operate itâ€ (cocaine.org)â€ More recently,
the cartels have built their own subs, with help from Italian engineers.
The traffickers have the advantages of unlimited funds and no scruples, and they've invested billions of dollars to create a technological infrastructure that would be the envy of any
Fortune 500 company, and of the law enforcement officials charged with going after them.
The monopoly of the cocaine business that was handed to the Cali cartel after the
dismantlement of the Medellin cartel in 1993 was short lived. By 1996 all of the members of the
Cali cartel were also tracked down. Gilberto Rodriguez was captured when female officers
posing as joggers followed him to an apartment. His brother, Miguel was caught by police
intelligence teams as he tried to get to his hiding compartment that was equipped with food,
water and an oxygen tank as well as a copy of Colombiaâ€™s penal code. Londono was captured at
a fancy restaurant in Bogota. It did not take Londono long to escaped from prison. But two
months later on March 5,1996 in the streets of Medellin, Santacruz Londono was shot to death
by police officials while resisting arrest.
â€œThe breakup of the two largest cartels by the mid-1990s did not lead to a long-term
decline in Colombian drug trafficking. Rather, it presaged a new phase in the drug war. The
cartels were quickly replaced by smaller organizations that lacked the capacity to operate
transnationally, and coca production in Colombia increased dramaticallyâ€ (Younger and Rosin)
â€œA controversial project implemented by the Colombian police to eradicate coca
production involves crop spraying, or aerial herbicide fumigation. Officials argue since the scale
of Colombiaâ€™s production is so vast and complicated by guerilla warfare, spraying is the only
way to safely eradicate the cropsâ€ (pbs.org-coca leaves).
â€œOpponents argue that risks associated with this method outweigh the benefits. The
herbicide contains Polyoxyethyleneamines, which irritate the respiratory tract, eyes and skin.
Also even though this herbicide is effective in eradicating illicit crops, it also eliminates food
crops. Many small farmers in southern Colombia lose their legal crops due to the aerial
fumigation counter narcotics spraysâ€ (pbs.org-coca leaves).
In the early 1990s, the DEA estimated that they collectively produced and exported from
Colombia between 500 and 800 tons of cocaine a year. At this time â€œColombiaâ€™s narcotic
industry employed around 200,000 people and generated between $2.2 and $5 billion annually,
roughly three percent of the countryâ€™s gross domestic product. Most of this money returns to
Colombia through complicated money laundering schemesâ€ (pbs.org-coca leaves).
Colombia is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. â€œThe murder rate
soared in 1999, with some 23,000 people reported killed by leftist guerrillas, right-wing
militaries, drug traffickers and common criminals. The violence has created more than 100,000
refugees, while 2 million Colombians have fled the country in recent yearsâ€ (infoplease.com)
Colombia now has the third-largest displaced population in the world.
1. Colombian Cartels. Frontline. www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/business/inside/Colombian.html
2. Colombian Civil War. Online News Hour. www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/latin_america/colombia/trade.html
3. Colombia. Infoplease.
4. Decline of the Medellin Cartell and the Rise of the Cali Mafia. DEA History Book. 1990-1994. www.usdoj.gov/dea/pubs/history/deahistory-05.htm
5. Drugs and Society. Country Studies
6. Grossman, Shari. â€œDeath and Drugsâ€ Harvard International Review Oct. 2005: Academic Search Premier. Arizona Western Community College Academic Library, Az. http://search.epnet.com
7. Rosin, Eileen, and Youngers, Coletta A. Drugs and Democracy in Latin America. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2005
8. Scott, Peter. Drugs, Oil and War. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003