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The War on Cocaine

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.

  1. 1

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

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