The War on Cocaine

With each passing month, the “war on drugs” looks increasingly like the war in Vietnam. The more money and manpower we pour into it, the more the enemy seems to advance. During the last five years, the budget of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has almost doubled, to more than half a billion dollars. Over the same period, the staff of the US Customs Service has grown from 12,000 to 16,000. To detect smugglers, the Reagan administration set up a national interdiction center in El Paso, Texas, installed radar-bearing blimps on the Mexican border, and sent sophisticated AWACS planes over the Caribbean. In Latin America, CIA agents are gathering intelligence on cocaine producers, the State Department is deploying expensive Huey helicopters, and the Green Berets are instructing local policemen in the art of paramilitary war.

Despite all this, narcotics continue to flow into the country with the same ease with which Viet Cong troops slipped down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Cocaine from the Andean nations of South America, heroin from the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia, marijuana from Mexico, Colombia, and Jamaica—all cross our borders like a silent invading army. As many as fifty countries are involved in the production, processing, and transporting of narcotics, forming an international network aimed at indulging American consumers. Every year, Americans spend between $50 billion and $100 billion on drugs. And that sum does not begin to measure the real cost to the nation—the crime, the accidents, the lost work days, not to speak of the destroyed lives. The toll is so great that drugs have surpassed even communism as a subject of national concern.

No substance causes as much damage as cocaine. An estimated 6 million Americans regularly use the drug. It has wrecked promising athletic careers, sparked violent gang wars, turned children into dealers, and, in the ubiquitous and relatively cheap form of crack, laid waste to our inner cities. For years now, the government has made cocaine its primary target. Nevertheless, more of the drug is entering the United States than ever before, causing a free fall in its price. Every April, the government issues a National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee Report, considered the most reliable source on domestic drug consumption. For cocaine in 1987, it stated, “wholesale prices during the year were the lowest ever reported, and the purity remained at high levels, reflecting wide-spread availability.” In 1980, a kilogram of wholesale cocaine sold in Miami for $60,000; today, it goes for $14,000.

As in Vietnam, the lack of results in the drug war has prompted calls for escalation. The new anti-narcotics law, passed by Congress in October, provides for a multinational task force designed to strike at trafficking organizations around the world. Mayor Koch of New York has suggested that the United States send tanks and bombers to level Medellín, seat of the infamous Colombian cartel, which is made up of the largest traders in cocaine. “I am beginning to think that the normal, acceptable methods no longer apply,” Representative Lawrence Smith (Democrat of Florida) observed during a House hearing earlier this year. “If we do not begin to come up with creative, effective solutions to these problems, this war is going to be lost.”

Is there any solution? Seeking an answer, I recently paid a visit to Colombia, the source of about 80 percent of the cocaine entering the United States. After talking with officials in Bogotá, touring the drug districts of Medellín, and visiting Colombia’s coca heartland, I came away convinced that the failures of US drug policy spring from a fundamental misreading of how the drug trade works. I found, in fact, that the cocaine business is undergoing some important changes, offering a rare opportunity to do something about it. That, however, would require a sharp reversal of the mistaken policies of the last eight years.


Colombia is home to 140 right-wing paramilitary squads, six Marxist guerrilla groups, two major drug cartels, and enough common criminals to sustain a murder rate 2.5 times that of New York City. Death is one of the country’s flourishing industries. Over the last decade, the number of outfits offering private security guards has risen from 182 to 414. The demand for armored cars is so brisk that three separate companies are busy producing them. Funerals, meanwhile, have become so frequent and expensive that people now join death cooperatives to help defray the cost.

Formally, Colombia is a democracy. It has an elected president (Virgilio Barco), two major parties (Liberal and Conservative), an independent judiciary, and a free press (thirty-one daily newspapers). But true authority in Colombia is held by people who have guns and are willing to use them. Violence inspired by the drug dealers—narcos—has destroyed the judicial system, and the guerrillas have turned large parts of the country into no-go zones for the government. The Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC)—the oldest Marxist guerrilla group in the hemisphere—has about thirty fronts, some of which function as virtual mini-states.

Unquestionably, though, the dominant institution in Colombia is the military. As hard-line as any in the hemisphere, the Colombian army wages war on the left with few constraints from the civilian government. Military personnel make up most of the country’s paramilitary groups. With names like Terminator, Kojak, and Vampires, these death squads conduct themselves with utter impunity, killing students, teachers, unionists, peasants, opposition party members, vagrants, squatters, and homosexuals. Between January and August 1988, an estimated two thousand people were assassinated or disappeared for political reasons. According to Americas Watch, Colombia has one of the worst human rights records in Latin America.

For US diplomats, Bogotá is considered the second most dangerous post in the world. (Beirut is first.) Government employees are prohibited from bringing their children with them, and most leave their spouses at home as well. Many carry guns, and top officials never travel without bodyguards; the DEA station chief has four of them. The embassy itself, a huge, concrete bunker situated in a bustling commercial district, is patrolled by armed guards and surrounded by an eight-foot-high green steel fence. American visitors thinking of traveling outside the capital are given a summary of travel conditions that runs for five pages and contains passages like the following:

Terrorist activity in several cities and many rural areas of the country has increased sharply…. In recent years several US citizens have vanished without a trace in narcotics processing and growing areas…. Any foreigner unable to present a current passport with a valid visa is subject to arrest…. Visits to rural areas should be avoided altogether by those who do not speak fluent Spanish and are not accompanied by an experienced guide or local resident…. Kidnappings are frequent and sometimes involve foreigners.

In contrast to the grim situation outside the embassy, the mood within seemed to me surprisingly optimistic. The officials I talked to indicated that relations between the United States and Colombia had never been better. “There’s been a change of attitude in Colombia,” Ambassador Thomas McNamara told me. Though he had arrived only a few weeks earlier, the ambassador spoke with the self-assuredness characteristic of Foreign Service officers on the rise, which McNamara surely is. From 1983 to 1986 he served as deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, helping to maintain ties with the generals of Honduras and El Salvador. In 1987 he moved to the National Security Council, becoming director of its office on counter-terrorism and narcotics matters—the same portfolio previously held by Oliver North.

If you had looked at the situation a year ago, there was less cooperation than is the case now,” said McNamara, who is forty-eight, tall, and businesslike. “A year ago, the military was relatively uninvolved. A year ago, the government was not pursuing the eradication program as vigorously as it is now. A year ago, you wouldn’t have begun to see the destruction of labs that is now taking place. Thousands of kilos of cocaine have been seized—an amount vastly in excess of anything in the past.”

In 1987 none of the traditional means of fighting the cocaine problem seemed to be working. Eradication of the coca fields, for instance. In Colombia, an estimated 30,000 hectares of land—more than 100 square miles—is planted with coca, and Washington has long insisted that the government do something about it. But Colombia is a large country, twice the size of France, and much of it is covered by mountain and jungle. Coca tends to grow in the most inaccessible parts. The State Department has favored the use of herbicidal spraying, which can kill hundreds of hectares at a time, but the Colombians have refused, fearing environmental damage. That has left manual eradication, i.e., burning or uprooting. Such work is painstakingly slow, however, and in all of 1987 only 457 hectares were eliminated.

Nor was extradition of the narcos proving very successful. From the start, this effort has been one of the Reagan administration’s chief preoccupations. Justice Department officials would like nothing better than to arrest the leaders of the Medellín cartel and ship them to the United States for trial. The twenty or so DEA agents in Colombia spend much of their time trying to find and arrest the main traffickers. So far, however, they have captured only one, Carlos Lehder. The narcos have effectively blocked Washington’s efforts by unleashing their own vicious underground army against any public figure who is so bold as to speak in favor of extradition. The violence eventually forced the DEA to close its office in Medellín, and in June 1987 the intimidated Supreme Court issued a technical ruling that effectively suspended the extradition treaty between the two countries.

American frustration became acute at the end of 1987. In November, Jorge Luis Ochoa, a leader of the Medellín cartel, was arrested at a routine traffic checkpoint. The Reagan administration loudly demanded his extradition, but the Colombians refused, and before long Ochoa had bribed his way out of jail. “A shocking blow to international law enforcement,” Attorney General Edwin Meese fumed. In retaliation, US Customs inspectors subjected Colombian visitors to humiliating searches, and perishable Colombian imports were left to spoil on Florida piers. Relations between the two countries could hardly have been worse.

All of that changed on January 25, 1988. On that day, Colombian Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos, in Medellín to investigate Ochoa’s release, was assassinated during an apparent kidnapping. The country was stunned by his murder. In a nationwide broadcast President Barco, vowing never to “surrender” to the drug trade, declared war on arms traffickers. The president invoked state-of-siege powers and announced that he was expanding the 70,000-man national police force by 5,000 men.

More important, the Colombian military decided to join the drug war. It was in many ways a natural step, for the armed forces seemed the one power in Colombia capable of taking on the drug traffickers. But the country’s generals had long resisted such a course. They regarded the guerrillas, not the narcos, as their principal enemy and opposed any undertaking that might distract them from their “real” war. In addition, the generals well knew the corrupting power of the drug trade and worried that their men might be drawn to it.

Nevertheless, the growing sense of panic in the country, combined with pressure from the Reagan administration, convinced the military to join the drug war. Beginning in March, the army’s Fourth Brigade, with headquarters in Medellín, launched an offensive against the drug cartel. Led by a charismatic general named Jaime Ruíz Barrera, the brigade attacked cocaine labs, raided safehouses, and disrupted transportation networks. For months the campaign went on, winning one victory after another. The results certainly looked impressive. For the first half of 1988, the Colombian government reported that 3,545 people had been arrested, 30 airplanes seized, 681 labs destroyed, 39 airstrips overrun, 125,050 gallons of ether confiscated, and 12,819 kilograms of cocaine—more than 14 tons—seized.

To officials in Washington, the military’s offensive seemed to mark a new, aggressive phase in the drug war. “Over the last six, seven, eight months, the record has been rather phenomenal,” says Michael Skol, the recently appointed deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. The military’s role has made Colombia a “model” drug fighter, he says. “It’s one of the few countries in the world in which the armed forces are committed to acting against the narcotraffickers in a big way.”

Yet the military’s campaign has had no discernible effect on the amount of cocaine entering the United States. For all the labs destroyed and airplanes seized, wholesale cocaine prices remain at record lows. “We applaud what the Colombian military is doing, but I don’t think they’re making a dent, primarily because they’ve been unable to arrest or bring to justice any major trafficker,” said Johnny Phelps, a DEA official who spent three and a half years in Colombia. The military’s campaign, he added, constitutes “a disrupting factor, a deterrent to some extent, raising the traffickers’ cost of doing business. But as far as the overall availability of cocaine is concerned, I don’t think the military is having any impact.”

Most Colombians would probably agree. In fact, many of the people I spoke to believe that no military strategy, however well planned or smartly executed, can succeed. In a sense, the drug traffickers have become invulnerable to the techniques of law enforcement. To understand why requires a look at how the drug trade works and the place it has come to occupy in Colombian society.


On the surface, at least, Medellín is one of South America’s most attractive cities. Set in a rolling Andean valley 5,000 feet above sea level, Medellín (pronounced Me-da-YEEN) enjoys a year-round spring-like climate that enables both palm trees and evergreens to thrive. During the day, crowds stream through narrow down-town streets filled with shops, cafés, and restaurants. To help relieve traffic congestion, the city is building a new elevated metro system. Most impressive of all are the city’s towering office buildings—witnesses to Medellín’s status as the nation’s industrial center. This is a city of entrepreneurs and tradesmen, who, over the years, have built fortunes in coffee, textiles, cattle, lumber, and, now, cocaine.

Medellín’s emergence as the world’s cocaine capital is no accident. Its location makes it a perfect bridge between the coca-growing regions to the south and Miami, the gateway to the north. Peasants grow the crop on small farms in Peru, Bolivia, and southern Colombia. After converting it into a gooey paste, they sell it to traffickers, who then fly it to labs to be processed into pure cocaine. Those labs must be kept hidden, of course, and the rugged terrain surrounding Medellín is ideal for that purpose. The finished product is then flown out in small planes to the United States, usually passing through Mexico or the islands of the Caribbean. Here, too, Medellín has an edge, for it has long been a smugglers’ haven, with citizens adept at moving illegal goods over long distances. With such comparative advantages, Medellín is now the headquarters of the largest transnational business in the third world.

In Medellín I hoped to discover how an illicit enterprise of this size could conduct its business without being detected by the authorities. Day and night, the biggest drug traffickers are stalked by the DEA, the anti-narcotics police, and the armed forces, yet they manage to remain at large. How do they do it? I arranged a tour of Medellín with an expert guide, a woman in her mid-twenties, who, until recently, had worked as a mula, or mule, carrying cocaine on commercial flights from one city to another. We met at dusk at my hotel, the Nutibara, an elegant old building in the heart of town. With another American journalist, we hailed a taxi and headed for El Poblado, the prosperous neighborhood where most of Medellín’s drug traffickers live.

We entered the district along a broad avenue lined with gleaming bank buildings and elegant shops and showrooms, whose windows displayed antique cars, Land Rovers, boats, motorcycles, and beautiful Persian rugs. The gas stations looked large enough to service American interstate highways. Winding roads led through sheltered groves of luxury condos, their satellite dishes peeking above the treetops. As we drove, our guide—I’ll call her María—pointed to one glass-and-steel complex after another, indicating which were owned by the traffickers. As we passed a huge, pagoda-like Chinese restaurant, she told me, “That’s owned by Pablo Escobar’s pilot.”

Pablo Escobar more or less owns the El Poblado district. He is the head of the Medellín cartel and—if Forbes magazine is to be believed—the fourteenth richest man in the world, with a fortune of $3 billion. Now thirty-nine years old, Escobar was a car thief and gun-for-hire before he discovered the fantastic profits to be made from cocaine. In 1976, Medellín police caught Escobar transporting thirty-nine pounds of cocaine in the back of a truck. Within a few years, he was shipping the stuff by the ton. Together with Jorge Luis Ochoa and Carlos Lehder, Escobar put together a highly sophisticated operation with its own security force, air network, export outlets, mechanics, chemists, and quality-control experts. Today the Medellín cartel takes in an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion a year.

On our tour, it was not hard to pick up Escobar’s tracks. In an urban park containing two soccer fields, a crowd of excited teen-agers raced up and down, their way lit by soaring light towers—a gift from Pablo Escobar. “Sometimes he comes here to play, and people come to watch,” María told us. In the barrio of La Paz, home of Escobar’s muchachos—young men who do everything from loading airplanes to killing judges—we passed rows of small but neat houses; at one corner a couple of teen-agers were sitting on motorcycles. “Sicarios,” María told us in a low voice, referring to the young toughs contracted by the traffickers to carry out assassinations. Most sicarios have motorcycles, which enable them to stalk their victims in traffic.

Our next stop was the Anclar Bar, the chief watering spot for Medellín’s mulas. Instead of the dark, smoke-filled den I expected, it was much like a yuppies’ bar on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The men we saw there were wearing expensive Armani shirts and Calvin Klein pants; the women wore tight jeans and heavy makeup. Though only in their twenties and thirties, all seemed to have made it big.

The next day I went to Barrio Pablo Escobar, a small Medellín neighborhood perched on a hillside overlooking the town. It consists of five hundred houses built by Escobar for Medellín’s poor. “No government in Colombia—Liberal, Conservative, Communist, or military—has built housing for the poor like this,” said an old, toothless man who crouched on the sidewalk stirring a pot of beans. He offered to show me his house, which turned out to be clean and spacious, with a concrete floor, zinc roof, indoor plumbing, and electricity—all luxuries for Colombia’s poor. Not many people in Medellín have actually visited Barrio Pablo Escobar, but everyone knows about it.

The narcos in Medellín, while hidden from the law, are clearly visible to everyone else. The most wanted men in the country, they nonetheless seem to come and go as they please. Corruption, of course, has something to do with it. The average Colombian policeman earns about $100 a month, so it takes little to get him to look the other way. But something more fundamental is at work. To put it simply, tens of thousands of people have benefited from the cocaine trade. For slum dwellers and rural migrants, working as a mula offers one of the few available escape routes from destitution. And that’s just the start. The narcos employ legions of mechanics, drivers, refiners, bodyguards, sicarios, bribers, and pilots. They hire lawyers to keep them out of jail, architects to design their condos, accountants to track their money, and financial advisers to invest it. According to one estimate, if the cocaine trade suddenly disappeared, Medellín’s unemployment rate would nearly double, to 25 percent.1 With so many beneficiaries, it’s not surprising that the traffickers can move about Medellín with impunity.

Even if the leaders were captured, it’s not clear what good it would do. The Reagan administration’s extradition strategy rests on a basic premise: if we could imprison the heads of the Medellín cartel, the drug business would collapse. The problem is, there is no real cartel. The term “cartel” connotes an organization that is able to control the price of a commodity; OPEC in the 1970s is the best recent example. But cocaine, even more than oil, is difficult to regulate. The raw material, coca, is easy to come by, and the process for converting it into pure cocaine is rudimentary. Certainly smuggling the substance into the United States has proved no great challenge. It’s thus not hard to get started in the cocaine business.

And many have. The two largest syndicates, based in Medellín and Cali, together control about 60 to 70 percent of the cocaine produced in Colombia, much of it from coca brought in from Peru and Bolivia. The rest is divided among 50 to 60 independent groups, each anxious to enlarge its market. The widely publicized war now taking place between the Medellín and Cali groups—a war that has claimed more than 100 victims—shows just how bloody the competition can become. In such circumstances, fixing a floor under the price of cocaine has proved virtually impossible. Interestingly, Colombians use the word cartel much more sparingly than Americans do. They generally refer to the trade as the mafia and its top men as capos.

With so many people fighting for a piece of the action, it’s hard to see what would result from extraditing a few of them. “If they captured or killed Pablo Escobar, two seconds later there’d be another Pablo Escobar,” a Colombian journalist told me. The case of Carlos Lehder would seem to bear that out. When Lehder was captured and extradited in early 1987, Justice Department officials maintained that it was the beginning of the end for the Medellín cartel. They were wrong. Lehder is now serving a life sentence in a Florida jail, but the drug trade is stronger than ever.

Moreover, fighting the narcos is likely to become even more difficult in the future, given the new mood taking shape in Colombia. Until recently, it was the poor and uneducated, aspiring to become traffickers themselves who provided the mafia’s main base of support. More prosperous Colombians generally detested the drug lords, seeing them as avaricious thugs who would sooner gun down a family than lose a good business deal. But that is beginning to change. While not embracing the mafia, middle-class Colombians are, little by little, beginning to accommodate it.

One reason for the shift is nationalism. Colombians are tired of fighting what they see as America’s war. That war has cost them a minister of justice, an attorney general, the head of the anti-narcotics police, two dozen journalists, more than fifty judges, and hundreds of policemen and soldiers. And what have they gotten in return? Taunts from Congress, unflattering stories in the American press, and strip searches at Miami airport. Increasingly, American antidrug operations inside Colombia are being viewed as a form of interventionism. Colombians are particularly resentful of the DEA, regarding it with the same opprobrium that else-where is reserved for the CIA. In short, anti-Americanism is on the rise in Colombia, and the mafia has been a prime beneficiary.

But the change in national attitude has an even stronger emotional foundation: resignation. The narcos are simply becoming too powerful to resist. The traffickers’ wealth is now so great that the government must take it into account when formulating economic policy. According to The Economist, “The cocaine boom is probably a big reason why the government has been able to avoid rescheduling foreign debt.”2 In the countryside, the traffickers are buying up huge tracts of land, while in the cities their demand for condos has spurred a construction boom. The narcos‘ air network dwarfs that of Avianca, the national airline, and their arsenal includes weapons that even the army covets. Politically, many members of the Colombian senate are thought to finance their campaigns with drug money. Even the Church has accepted narco contributions. Indeed, the drug trade seems to have become more powerful than the state itself.

The trend can be seen in the contrasting fortunes of two Colombian writers. Fabio Castillo is a former columnist and investigative reporter for El Espectador, Colombia’s most enterprising newspaper. Late last year, Castillo published a book on the drug world called Los Jinetes de la Cocaína (roughly, “Cocaine Cowboys”).3 Dedicated to eleven journalists and officials murdered by the traffickers, the book seeks to “expose to the nation those people who, while trying to portray themselves as Robin Hoods, are shown by their own personal histories to be ruthless assassins.” Los Jinetes names plenty of names. Arrest records, hidden airstrips, contract killings, mafia properties, and cocaine transactions are all there in excrutiating detail.

When Los Jinetes appeared last fall, bookstores could not keep it in stock, and pirated editions were hawked in the streets. Sales were helped by the traffickers themselves, who bought up thousands of copies and had them destroyed. In all, some 300,000 copies were sold. The repercussions? None whatever. The government has not bothered to follow up on any of the revelations contained in the book. The only real casualty has been Castillo himself, who after receiving numerous death threats was forced to leave the country. He now lives in exile.

The experience of Mario Arango, a Medellín writer and lawyer who serves as legal counsel to several top drug traffickers, has been different. In September he published Impacto del Narcotráfico en Antioquia, a look at the drug trade’s impact on the province that includes Medellín.4 The book has also become an immediate best seller, thanks largely to an informal poll Arango conducted with twenty capos. He found, among other things, that:

—85 percent of them carry a gun;

—60 percent have more than one lover;

—40 percent regard watching videos as their favorite form of entertainment;

—25 percent use cocaine;

—80 percent send their children to be educated abroad; and

—75 percent favor the legalization of drugs in the United States.

But Impacto del Narcotráfico offers more than a look at the rich and famous. It is the first attempt to make a serious intellectual case for the mafia. Arango portrays the traffickers as a dynamic “new class” that has displaced Medellín’s snobbish old money. The drug trade, he writes, “has provoked a social revolution,” facilitating the “large-scale rise of marginal strata” into the “consumer society.” Going further, Arango asserts that “it is possible to state, without risk of error, that the money from the drug traffic has acted as a brake on the social and political deterioration of the country.”

Arango’s book barely alludes to murder, corruption, the collapse of the judicial system, the increase in addiction. When I asked him about this, he said, “Narco-trafficking is a typically capitalist phenomenon, and capitalism at first is always criminal.” We spoke in his spacious study, which was furnished with considerable taste, except for a large portrait of Stalin that stared into the room from the hallway. He compared the drug trade to the slave trade in America, saying, of slavery, “This is capitalism. It’s violent by nature. The drug trade is no different.”

Ideologically, Arango’s analysis seemed a bizarre mix, half Adam Smith, half Karl Marx. Still, his views are getting a respectful hearing in Colombia. This October, El Tiempo, the country’s leading newspaper, published a long interview with him, and one of its most influential columnists, Enrique Santos Calderón, wrote, “One cannot ignore the importance of this work…. [It] contributes to a better understanding of a social phenomenon that, whether we like it or not, goes to the very heart of our agitated reality.” Coming from El Tiempo—the voice of the Colombian establishment—such a comment would clearly suggest that a mood of acceptance of the drug trade is spreading among Colombia’s elite.

The drug trade is like a river,” observed Francisco Leal, director of the Institute for Political Studies and Foreign Affairs at Colombia’s National University. “It’s a force of nature. You can channel it, build walls along its banks, get electricity from it. But the river won’t disappear. All you can hope to do is manage it.” Managing the drug trade, Leal said, would require an alternative to the “repressive methods” generally favored by the United States. Many others made this same point during my stay in Colombia. A radically new approach was needed, I was told, one that took full account of the social and economic dimensions of the cocaine business.


In San José de Guaviare, a rough river town in the Colombian jungle, the main street is lined with pool halls, video shops, cheap hotels, discos, and unisex beauty parlors. In the mornings, people sit in fly-infested cafés drinking cups of black coffee, called tintos. At night they gather in the town’s many bars—boisterous places where the ranchero music is always played at full blast. The drinking lasts only until 11 o’clock, when San José’s generators are turned off and the town suddenly goes dark.

I came to San José to see the region where coca is grown and to learn what the government was doing about it. Everywhere the talk was about the crisis in coca production. During the boom, people said, the main bars in town had a few hundred prostitutes each; today, they’re lucky if they have a dozen. Then, peasant farmers ordered bottles of eighteen-year-old Chivas Regal; now they take aguardiente, a nasty local brew that tastes like cheap ouzo. The town’s airport used to have three hundred flights daily; today it rarely gets forty.

An hour’s plane ride southeast of Bogotá, San José is the capital of the Guaviare, a lush, untamed region that accounts for 80 percent of Colombia’s coca. Ten years ago, Colombia produced no coca, and San José had only a few thousand residents. Today, Colombia produces 30,000 hectares, and San José is a busy little town of 25,000 people. Lately, though, the town’s fortunes have slumped. In contrast to the capos in Medellín, who continue to enjoy large markups on their exports, those at the bottom of the cocaine pyramid have seen their profits evaporate. Their woes are due in part to a new government program designed to rid the region of coca. Compared to Bolivia and Peru, Colombia is not a major grower of coca, but its crop has grown steadily in recent years, and the government’s efforts to limit it says a lot about the course of the drug war throughout South America.

The government’s anticoca squad wasn’t very large—just two administrators and an agronomist—but it seemed one of the few government activities being carried out with some enthusiasm. The three men worked for the National Rehabilitation Plan (PNR), an ambitious program launched by President Barco in 1986 to help develop Colombia’s most backward regions. Day after day, the PNR team traveled to the Guaviare’s outlying villages, urging peasants to give up coca and plant such substitutes as corn, rice, yucca, and cocoa. As I accompanied the men on their rounds and listened to their optimistic projections and fierce anti-communist rhetoric, I felt I was back in the early days of the Alliance for Progress.

The PNR representative took me to the office of José Francisco Gómez, the Guaviare’s comisario, or governor, a loquacious man whose interviews tend to become monologues. He told me that the Barco government was trying to make the Guaviare a “national model,” demonstrating how an economic backwater could be propelled into the modern world. Throughout the region, the government was at work installing aqueducts and power plants, erecting schools and hospitals. It was also laboring to replace coca. The crop was a menace, Gómez said, encouraging violence and corruption and destroying the health of the people. Already, he observed, the government had eliminated 40 percent of the Guaviare’s crop; now it was trying to do away with the rest. The peasants were certainly amenable. “Everyone,” he observed, “wants to get out of coca.”

The reasons, he said, were simple. In the late 1970s, with world cocaine prices surging, traffickers from Medellín flocked to the Guaviare. Conditions here were ideal for growing coca. The land was fertile and the rainfall abundant, and the region’s lack of roads made it difficult for the state to penetrate. The narcos gave the peasants seeds and taught them how to convert coca leaves into paste, an intermediate stage in the production of cocaine. The paste was flown out in small aircraft to be processed in laboratories, mostly in the Medellín region. The profits were astronomical: a farmer could earn more from one hectare of coca than he might otherwise see in an entire lifetime.5 Overnight San José changed from a sleepy hamlet to Gomorrah-in-the-Guaviare. Adventurers, misfits, and fortune hunters poured in from across the country.

The guerrillas came, too. The lure of money and the absence of government made the Guaviare an irresistible target, and in the early 1980s the FARC—the country’s largest and most orthodox guerrilla group—moved in. The FARC never got much involved in production; rather, it levied taxes on both farmers and traffickers (about 10 percent in each case). The organization grew very rich, using its revenues to buy arms and extend its control. Gradually, the FARC took over the functions of the state in the Guaviare, imposing its own draconian system of justice. This included a remarkably effective technique for stamping out drug addiction: any peasant found consuming bazuco (a local form of crack) was given several warnings; if he persisted, he was taken into a field and shot.

The boom began to fade in 1983. With the price of cocaine tumbling, many peasants went into debt, and the traffickers hired sicarios to settle scores. Shootouts became a nightly affair, claiming five, ten, even fifteen victims at a time. With the massacres mounting and the guerrillas grown rich off coca, the government eventually decided to retake the region. In December 1987, it sent hundreds of heavily armed troops sweeping into the Guaviare’s remote settlements. The guerrillas did not put up much resistance, preferring instead to disappear into the bush.

For the government to maintain control of the region, it had to win the support of the peasants, and to that end it began building public works. Maintaining control also meant denying the guerrillas their chief source of income, which was coca. So the government set about to eliminate it. A large detachment of anti-narcotics police was assigned to San José. By helicopter they fanned out over the jungle, looking for coca fields and setting fire to them. However, it was clear that such a strategy could never destroy more than a fraction of the crop—the region was simply too vast and inaccessible. Clearly a less coercive program was needed.

The key factor in planning that program was the depressed price of coca. With world markets glutted, coca paste was earning one fifth or less of what it had during the boom; at such a level, the plant was barely profitable. To make it even less so, the government clamped down on the sale of the materials used in the production process. Gasoline, cement, plastic, chemicals—anyone wanting to purchase these products had to obtain a license indicating that he would use them for legal purposes. Prices for these goods immediately shot up.

Many Guaviare farmers now wanted to stop cultivating coca, but they needed something to grow in its place. “We can’t tell the peasants to get out of coca without providing an alternative,” the comisario told me during our interview. Enter the PNR. It offered the peasants loans to buy the seeds, fertilizer, and other materials needed for new crops. There was one major obstacle, however. “The state is very poor,” Gómez explained. “People tell me that they want to leave coca, but we don’t have enough money to help them.”

When I asked him whether the United States had offered any assistance, Gómez said no and began to speak loudly: “Instead of spending millions of dollars trying to stop the flow of cocaine into the United States, you should help us build up the infrastructure and make loans to the farmers. Instead of spending all this money in Florida on interdiction, send it here, to the source. This is the best place to fight the war against cocaine.”

The chief preoccupation of the officials in the region was finding a way to allow peasants to get their food crops to market. For a close look at the problem the PNR had arranged for me to visit Calamar, a major trafficking center fifty miles to the south. The road there was terrible, so Jaime, the PNR representative, and Juan Carlos, his aide, an agronomist, had reserved a four-seat air taxi. Throughout the flight the pilot kept the plane very low—no more than eight hundred feet—so that we could get a good glimpse at the landscape below. Ten minutes out of San José, we flew over a small patch of land whose bright green color stood out from the surrounding vegetation: coca. Four or five times during the trip, Jaime pointed out similar splotches—many fewer, he assured me, than before the army’s occupation, which had encouraged the planting of other crops. But the San José–Calamar road, which stretched out below us, was, he said, “a terrible road and the peasants can’t get their crops to market.” As we glided along, I could make out slowly moving packs of mules and, occasionally, trucks trying to navigate mammoth potholes.

Twenty-five minutes out of San José, Calamar came into view. The dirt runway, too, had large potholes. We took a mule-drawn cart into town, getting off at the Danubio restaurant, on Calamar’s unpaved and badly rutted main strip. Nearby were greasy food kiosks, sour-smelling bars, and tawdry shops selling used clothes. Soldiers carrying submachine guns ambled along, paying no notice to the Communist party posters plastered on the walls (a reminder of the FARC’s popularity).

Calamar has no telephones. When somebody is wanted, his name is broadcast MASH-like over loudspeakers manned from the Danubio. We asked for the mayor, and a few minutes later he materialized. I explained my interest in the coca problem. The seventy-year-old mayor, Vincente Ferrer Londoño, began describing Calamar’s many woes. “Coca is dying,” he said. “It’s no longer profitable. The only people who keep growing it are those who can’t find any other work.” Most traffickers had long since stopped coming.

The government’s assistance program was not doing well, he said. He was particularly unhappy about the state of the road system. “Farmers here can grow a lot of corn and rice,” Ferrer said. “But how are they going to sell it if there aren’t any roads?” If the government paved the road from Calamar to San José—the gateway to the national market—“coca would completely disappear.”

Sitting in Calamar’s bars, with the heat breaking in waves and names crackling over the loudspeaker, I felt that I had somehow arrived at the source of the cocaine entering the United States. The message from everyone was virtually identical: the dramatic fall in the price of coca was forcing farmers to move into food crops. But they could do so only if they had sufficient credit and, more importantly, good roads. Everyone agreed that enabling the peasants to get their crops to market was the key to any anticoca program. Certainly “repressive” methods would never get the job done.

Back in San José, I talked to the head of the anti-narcotics police. Captain Omar Humberto Díaz is only twenty-six, but he commands a 120-man force that is responsible for all eradication efforts in the region. For once I found someone willing to defend the DEA. “Without the DEA, we wouldn’t be able to get anything done,” Captain Díaz told me. The agency’s most important contribution, he said, was the helicopters it provided: “When the helicopters are here, we can do a lot to find coca fields and burn them.” Unfortunately, he added, the copters came only every two or three weeks and stayed for a few days before flying off to other districts. When I mentioned my trip to Calamar, and the farmer’s pleas for help, Díaz made it clear he knew what I was talking about. “I need more helicopters in my work,” Díaz said, “but it’s also important to give the peasant the means to replace his coca with other crops.” I noted that the United States these days had very limited resources to spend abroad. “If you had to choose between getting a new helicopter and giving farmers more credit,” I asked, “which would you take?”

The credits,” he said without pausing.


US drug policy abroad is coordinated from a small State Department office called the Bureau of International Narcotics Matters (INM), headed by Assistant Secretary of State Ann Wrobleski, a political appointee who previously was Nancy Reagan’s adviser on drug issues. (She had much to do with the “Just Say No” campaign.) INM spends about $100 million a year, of which only $3.6 million goes for crop-substitution and development assistance. By contrast, $45 million is spent on eradicating crops and $35 million on law enforcement and interdiction. “INM will continue to place primary priority on eradication in source countries, focusing on the reduction of coca in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, and will urge Andean governments to test and utilize herbicides to destroy coca,” the bureau states in its 1988 report to Congress.^6

The 1988 INM report offers many figures on INM’s 1987 performance. They are rather embarrassing. Take, for instance, the bureau’s eradication program. For the entire year, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia managed to eradicate a combined total of 1,815 hectares of coca fields—less than 1 percent of the more than 300,000 hectares of coca being cultivated in the three countries. Even those 1,815 hectares were more than offset by new land brought into production. According to one estimate, in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley—the world’s largest coca-producing region—peasants plant almost two hectares of the crop for every one destroyed.7

INM’s herbicide campaign has been an even greater failure. For years the bureau has pressured the Andean governments to permit the use of herbicides on coca fields. INM has been championing tebuthiuron, commercially known as Spike, which it claims is perfectly safe in its effects on the environment. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been able to convince anyone in Latin America. The concern, though, is less environmental than political. As I found during my stay in the Guaviare, no subject arouses more passion than herbicides. “These herbicides work on contact, burning the leaves of whatever plant it touches,” Juan Carlos, the PNR agronomist, angrily told me. “That includes everything—bananas, yucca, corn. So if you try to spray a field and there’s a wind blowing, it will destroy all nearby crops as well.” Generally speaking, herbicides are considered an excellent recruiting device for the guerrillas. Not surprisingly, the Bolivian government has outlawed their use, and even Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of Spike, refuses to sell it to the US government.

If, by some miracle, Spike is cleared for use, INM will have no trouble finding the planes to spray it. The bureau operates an Inter-regional Narcotics Eradication Air Wing, which maintains more than 150 aircraft, including a C-123 cargo plane, a dozen fixed-wing spray planes, and a great many helicopters. The planes are already active throughout the Andes, spraying marijuana fields, conducting manual eradication, and carrying out assaults on labs and airstrips. Eager to expand its fleet, the State Department recently awarded an Arizona company a contract worth up to $70 million over five years to operate an INM air base in Miami.8

The State Department with its own air force! Nothing sums up better the Reagan administration’s twisted approach to the drug problem. The cocaine business employs a million people, takes in billions of dollars, and covers a thousand square miles; the current administration’s response has been to authorize the State Department to conduct an air war on South America’s coca fields.

Unfortunately, the Democrats have not been very successful in fashioning an alternative. In fact, they tend to take an even more bellicose line than the Republicans. For example, after a fact-finding visit to Colombia and Peru last July, Representative Stephen Solarz (Democrat of New York) issued a statement that said:

Without an adequate air force of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, it is difficult to see how either interdiction or elimination of the jungle laboratories that produce cocaine can be achieved. Nor does Colombia have any military radar along the flight paths most frequently used by the narcotraffickers….

Neither Peru nor Colombia have [sic] asked for, nor do they want, American military forces. What they do want, and what they clearly need, are resources to do the job themselves—helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, airbases, radar stations, and the like.

The antidrug bill recently passed by Congress allots $15 million in military assistance for Colombia, most of it in air assets to help fight the drug trade.

Such assistance will have little effect, according to most of the Colombians I met. From peasants to professors, police captains to politicians, I found a consensus about how best to fight the cocaine trade. Even the attorney general, Horacio Serpa, one of the country’s top law enforcement officials, told me: “The most important thing now is to provide resources for crop substitution in the zones where marijuana and coca are being produced—to give the Colombian peasant, who is a victim of poverty and the voracity of the narcotraffickers, a chance to earn an income sufficient for a dignified life.”

Yet while the United States makes available millions of dollars for military hardware, it gives Colombia not a cent in economic assistance. It seems time to change this. The current low price of coca offers an excellent opportunity to attack the drug problem at its source. We might begin by building a road between Calamar and San José de Guaviare. It would cost about 500 million Colombian pesos, or not quite $2 million—a bargain, given the blow it would strike at Colombia’s coca production.

Of course, Calamar is hardly alone in needing better transportation facilities. Throughout the Guaviare, poor, remote settlements are clamoring for their own roads. And beyond the Guaviare are the vast coca regions of Peru and Bolivia. Building enough roads and extending enough loans to make a difference there would require a huge sum—$200 to $300 million, according to State Department estimates.

At a time of soaring deficits and foreign aid cuts, such a price would seem out of the question. But the money already exists—in current anti-narcotics programs that aren’t working. Year after year, we spend huge sums on tired schemes that have failed to show even the slightest results. Why not divert a portion of that money into a new approach, which holds out at least some hope? A good starting point would be to eliminate the State Department’s eradication program, which is a demonstrable failure. Phasing it out would immediately save $45 million. Next, liquidating the State Department’s air wing, a white elephant if there ever was one, could raise the available pool to $100 million.

The rest could come from the nation’s interdiction budget. Over the last year, the United States has spent about $1 billion trying to intercept drugs at its borders. In the case of cocaine, we’ve probably interdicted no more than 10 percent of the total amount shipped here. No matter what technique we adopt, smugglers always manage to adapt. In the latest folly, the US Customs Service is lining the Mexican border with huge radar-equipped blimps. Capable of peering 100 miles into Mexico, these huge balloons are supposed to detect drugladen planes as they approach the border. But the smugglers have already transferred their merchandise into land vehicles and driven it across the border. Since the first dirigible was installed earlier this year, Customs has failed to capture a single smuggler; nevertheless, it plans to install fifteen more blimps at a cost of up to $1 billion over the next six years.9 Imagine what that sum could accomplish if it were invested in the coca regions of South America.

Of course, no single strategy can work. By themselves, roads and credits cannot eliminate the drug traffic. The obstacles are too great. Corruption, for instance. In the case of the San José–Calamar road, the Colombian government actually allocated money for the project, only to see it pocketed by unscrupulous officials. Clearly, any aid program would have to come accompanied by a corps of accountants. Security is another concern. In the Upper Huallaga Valley, Sendero Luminoso guerrillas are so entrenched that aid workers might have to carry M-16s. Even if successful, a crop-substitution program could prove self-defeating, for the more coca that is taken out of production, the more upward pressure is placed on prices. Unless demand is simultaneously reduced, an aid program could, paradoxically, enhance the appeal of coca.

All discussions of the drug problem ultimately come back to demand. For years Latin Americans urged the United States to do something about consumption, and for years the Reagan administration dithered, content to rely on slogans and lectures. Now, finally, we are heeding the Latins’ advice. The recently enacted drug law authorizes about $500 million in new spending—half of it for treatment and education. That’s a modest step, given the scope of the problem, but one in the right direction. Until demand goes down, even development assistance will prove futile.

The seeming intractability of the drug problem has increased support for legalization. Once considered too shocking for mention in polite company, the proposal now stares out from magazine covers. In Colombia I asked people about legalization, hoping to find some new perspective on the subject. I didn’t. Legalizing drugs has unquestionable appeal in Colombia, for it promises to eliminate much of the violence associated with the narcos, but even so, the resistance to legalization is strong. During the last few years, drug consumption has exploded in Colombia, filling its cities with aimless bands of lost young people. People fear that any move toward legalization would only increase addiction.

That, of course, is the prime worry in the United States as well. Proponents of legalization have been very vague about the effects their schemes would likely have on drug consumption. How do they propose to contain it? By imposing a high minimum age? By limiting the number of dispensaries? By requiring some form of prescription? Unfortunately, the more regulations that are imposed, the more opportunities arise for a black market; the larger the black market, the more crime and violence. One way or another, the proposals for legalization seem premature, especially since efforts to reduce demand have not been given the test they deserve.

But it is clear that the policy pursued during the last few years, with its heavy emphasis on interdiction and eradication, cannot work. This was driven home to me toward the end of my stay in Colombia, when I had breakfast with a DEA official. He told me that 1988 had, from the enforcement standpoint, been Colombia’s most successful year so far. Within the next year or two, he predicted, the leaders of the Medellín and Cali cartels would either be in jail or dead. If the US enforcement budget for Colombia were increased five or ten times, he said expansively, “I feel we could run the traffickers out of Colombia altogether.”

No sooner had he made that remark, though, than he qualified it: “That would solve the problem in Colombia—but not the worldwide availability of cocaine.” Already, the official noted, the traffickers are moving into Brazil. He began describing the logistical problems posed by that country—the jungles, the wildness, the sheer size of the place. “That’s the future problem,” he said. “It scares the hell out of me.”


The War on Cocaine’: An Exchange March 2, 1989

  1. 1

    Fortune (June 20, 1988), p. 29.

  2. 2

    October 8, 1988, p. 24.

  3. 3

    Bogotá: Editorial Documentos Periodistas, 1987.

  4. 4

    Medellín: Editorial J.M. Arango, 1988.

  5. 5

    Alfredo Molano, Selva Adentro (Bogotá: El Ancora Editores, 1987).

  6. 7

    Rensselaer W. Lee III, “Why the US Cannot Stop South American Cocaine,” Orbis (Fall 1988), p. 514.

  7. 8

    The Miami Herald, October 11, 1988.

  8. 9

    The Washington Post, November 6, 1988.