Colombia's Role in International Drug Trafficking

By Tate, Winifred | Foreign Policy in Focus, November 11, 1999 | Go to article overview

Colombia's Role in International Drug Trafficking


Tate, Winifred, Foreign Policy in Focus


What is called "drug trafficking" in the U.S. is in fact a major, multifaceted, and global industry. Colombia's role in this industry has evolved over the past decades. In the 1970s, a boom in marijuana cultivation along Colombia's Atlantic Coast created a class of newly rich traffickers supplying the U.S. market. In the late 1970s, Colombia's new cartels, first in Medellin and then in Cali, expanded from marijuana to the processing and export of cocaine. Led by a small number of powerful drug kingpins, these family-based empires came to control a billion-dollar cocaine industry that processed coca grown primarily in Bolivia and Peru.

The power and violence of the drug industry came to permeate all facets of Colombian society, as signified by the saying "plata o plomo"--silver or lead--meaning "take the bribe or take a bullet." Drug lords achieved unprecedented political influence through threats, bribery, and political contributions. Drug violence also undermined Colombia's longstanding democracy, particularly during the 1980s, when the Medellin Cartel waged war on the Colombian government, killing hundreds of judges, police investigators, journalists, and public figures.

In addition to these targeted killings, paramilitary organizations--supported by drug traffickers--have carried out more generalized violence in rural areas against the civilian population. Since the early 1980s, drug traffickers, together with landowners and local military commanders, have formed paramilitary organizations to "clean" their territory of guerrillas and alleged guerrilla sympathizers and to protect land, cattle, and cocaine laboratories and strategic shipping routes. During the 1990s, ties between illicit drug operations and paramilitary organizations solidified, with several paramilitary chiefs becoming high-level traffickers. For instance, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has labeled paramilitary leader Carlos Castano a "major drug trafficker." Castano is the public face of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an umbrella group of regional paramilitary forces. Over the past three years, the AUC has orchestrated hundreds of massacres and selective assassinations throughout Colombia, in many cases with the support of local Colombian security forces. The U.S. State Department estimates that paramilitary forces are responsible for more than 70% of Colombia's human rights abuses.

Beginning in 1989 with the "Andean Strategy," U.S. funds, equipment, logistical support, and personnel from the DEA, the CIA, and other agencies have played a leading role in counternarcotics operations in Colombia.

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