AN INTERNATIONAL STORY THE MYTH OF THE 'NARCOGUERRILLAS' On March 10, 1984, Colombian police swooped down on a jungle drug complex known as Tranquilandia and seized 27,500 pounds of pure cocaine. It was the biggest coke bust in history. A few days later the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Lewis Tambs, made a startling announcement: Tranquilandia had been protected by Communist rebels. He dubbed them "narcoguerrillas."
It's now acknowledged that Tambs conjured up a phantom. There were no guerrillas at Tranquilandia. Gen. Miguel Antonio Gomez Padilla, the former head of Colombia's antinarcotics police, admitted in an interview that police did not encounter Communist rebels, their uniforms or even propaganda. "Tambs got ahead of the evidence," a senior State Department official acknowledged. Nevertheless, the narcoguerrilla was projected as reality by the Reagan Administration. A 1985 State Department and Defense Department report on Soviet influence in Latin America warned of an "alliance between drug smugglers and arms dealers in support of terrorists and guerrillas." A 1986 presidential directive raised drug smuggling to the level of a national security threat because of what Vice President George Bush called "a real link between drugs and terrorism." The next year U.S. delegates to the Conference of American Armies, meeting in Argentina, urged Latin American general staffs to unite against "narcoterrorism." Finally, in a report released this May, the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies declared that "narcoterrorism" is now "on a par with communism as a threat to western interests in Latin America."
This language is in line with a familiar vision of the United States besieged by foreign devils, but it obscures the essential difference between drug traffickers and Marxist insurgents. The notion of a "narcoguerrilla" unites what can't be united: Top traffickers are hugely successful capitalists bent on boosting their earnings and their social status. Marxist rebels want to overthrow capitalism altogether. These contradictory objectives explain why guerrillas and traffickers are killing each other in Peru and Colombia, and why the Medellin cocaine cartel lurks behind Colombia's dirty war. The narcoguerrilla notion ignores not only these realities but the political impact of Latin America's exploding drug industry. The voracious U.S. demand for cocaine has jolted regional economies, thrusting to center stage a violent new actor in Latin American politics: the narco New Right.
The narcos want to get into the establishment, not overthrow it. They see bloodshed as part of the price of admission to the ruling class--a reasonable reading of Latin American history. The introduction of coffee in Colombia at the end of the last century brought on a civil war. Brazil's cacao boom gave rise to the corrupt killers made famous by Jorge Amado in his novel The Violent Land. Eventually the captains of coffee and cacao bought and bludgeoned their way into the oligarchy, and the same is almost certain to happen with the rising new stratum of cocaine capitalists.
The narcos seek to legitimize their nouveau riche status through nationalism, and their nationalism infects their investment decisions. Latin American elites traditionally squirrel away their dollars in foreign banks and buy second houses overseas, but traffickers "don't want to go to the south of France," as one U.S. diplomat told me. "They don't speak French." What they do speak is the language of money. Traffickers bring back drug dollars and invest heavily in the national economy. In Colombia they repatriate between $1 billion and $2 billion annually. Last year they "reactivated" the economy, according to the controller general. The steady devaluation of the Colombian peso makes dollar repatriation on this scale an unsound business practice, but traffickers are moved by more than the profit motive. They want …