Snowfields: The War on Cocaine in the Andes

Snowfields: The War on Cocaine in the Andes

Snowfields: The War on Cocaine in the Andes

Snowfields: The War on Cocaine in the Andes

Excerpt

One chill day in July 1991, Pablo Escobar, the godfather of Colombia's notorious Medellín cocaine cartel, quietly surrendered to the authorities. He handed his pistol to officials on the outskirts of Medellín and was whisked by helicopter to a special prison in the Andean foothills overlooking his boyhood town of Envigado. After nearly a year on the run, the world's Number One cocaine boss had chosen the day and the conditions of his surrender and imprisonment. Some thought the ranch-style prison camp was more like a five-star hotel: spread over ten acres, it had its own soccer field, a king-size bed and furnishings handpicked by the chubby-faced multi‐ billionaire himself. A 5000-volt electric fence reinforced with barbed wire circled the camp, but it was not so much to keep the druglord in as to keep his enemies out. None the less officials hailed the imprisonment of the world's most wanted man as a turning point in the world-wide war against cocaine.

In fact, Escobar's incarceration was not quite the victory it seemed. From 1989 when the Colombian government declared all-out war on the drug cartels and US President Bush put the fight against cocaine top of his agenda, the rival Cali cartel had been quietly taking the upper hand. Medellín cartel members had spread their smuggling and cocaine processing operations to nearly a dozen other Latin American nations. They joined cocaine barons in those countries who were silently building up their empires while international attention focused on Colombia.

One of the cocaine trade's most important new centres is Bolivia, a landlocked country of gaunt snow-capped Andean mountains and semi‐ tropical jungle lowlands. The poorest nation in South America, it is also the most cocaine-addicted. Cocaine exports outstrip legal exports, around one in five Bolivians work in cocaine-related jobs and without cocaine the country's economy would collapse. In 1980 drug traffickers managed to install their own government in a military takeover which became known as the 'cocaine coup'. In 1984, the country's Number One drug boss, Roberto Suárez, was so powerful he offered to pay off the foreign debt.

Bolivian Indians have cultivated the coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine, on the steamy eastern slopes of the Andes for thousands of years. It is chewed by inhabitants of the highlands to make life a little more tolerable . . .

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