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The War on Cocaine

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.

  1. 2

    October 8, 1988, p. 24.

  2. 3

    Bogotá: Editorial Documentos Periodistas, 1987.

  3. 4

    Medellín: Editorial J.M. Arango, 1988.

  4. 5

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

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