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Colombia: The Rise of Drug-Trafficking Organizations
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Setting > The Contemporary Era, 1978–98 > The Rise of Drug-Trafficking Organizations


Neither changes in the distribution of cabinet posts nor the election of mayors had much effect on the increasingly negative popular perceptions of the political system, and another reason for this was the sudden rise of the illicit drug industry. In Colombia as elsewhere, illegal drugs were nothing new, but in the Colombian case the rapid expansion of the drug trade in the last quarter of the twentieth century had obvious destabilizing effects. The phenomenon first attracted attention in the 1970s, when the isolated mountain range just south of Santa Marta, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, became the source of large amounts of marijuana grown for the United States market, but this was a short-lived boom. Production did not cease, but the Colombian product was competing against improved North American cannabis, and counternarcotics efforts likewise took a toll.

More serious was the emergence of Colombia in the following decade as the leading supplier of cocaine. Colombia was not at first a major producer of the coca plant and its coca paste derivative, which came principally from Peru and Bolivia, but Colombia had comparative advantages as processor and distributor. The country’s location in the northwest corner of the continent meant that shipments could easily be made to either coast of the United States and to Europe. In addition, entrepreneurial skills were rather more developed in Colombia, most notably in Antioquia, where it further happened that the textile industry was facing hard times because of an increase in contraband imports. It is thus not altogether surprising that, in the 1980s, what was loosely termed the Medellín Cartel gained notoriety as the world’s leading supplier of cocaine. Within that cartel, the key player was Pablo Escobar Gaviria, who was not just a gifted entrepreneur but also a second-string Liberal politician, local philanthropist, and employer of squads to kill both inconvenient rivals and public servants intent on enforcing the laws. The most eminent victims of the cartel and its associates were the Colombian minister of justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who was assassinated on April 30, 1984, and, five years later, the Liberal reformist Luis Carlos Galán, who was the odds-on favorite to succeed Barco as president in the next election.

The excesses of the drug barons inevitably provoked countermeasures by the Colombian authorities, with eager U.S. encouragement. Escobar himself was induced to surrender, on promise of lenient treatment, but still escaped from his comfortable prison, although police tracked him down and killed him on a Medellín rooftop as he attempted to flee in 1993. Yet even before his death, the Medellín Cartel had lost its preeminence, thanks to the rise of the rival Cali Cartel plus assorted minicartels and independent operators. Drug-processing laboratories continued to be raided, shipments intercepted, and the occasional member of the drug industry extradited to face charges in the United States, but the narcotics problem did not go away. In fact, certain new elements entered the picture. One was the rapid increase of coca cultivation in Colombia itself, which ultimately outstripped Peru and Bolivia in production. Another was the increasing involvement of leftist guerrillas as well as of the paramilitary groups that arose to combat them. These forces generally began by extorting protection money from growers, processors, and exporters but increasingly took a hand themselves, at least in processing and commercialization. And, by the 1990s, Colombia was becoming an important source of heroin from opium poppies, although the country’s role in supplying heroin was far more limited than in cocaine.

Coca plantings and most processing laboratories were in areas of scant state presence, so the scope of the illicit drug industry was hard to estimate and susceptible to frequent exaggeration. One often read that the drug lords “controlled” Colombia, but they were not even interested in controlling most of what went on—only in staying alive, out of jail, and not extradited to the United States. Partly because of declining world coffee prices, illegal drugs came to surpass coffee in export value but did not outstrip mineral exports—petroleum, coal, and nickel—which in the late twentieth century were gaining new importance. Nor did the drug industry ever come close to coffee as a source of employment. The influx of dollars from drug sales contributed to an upward revaluation of Colombian currency, which inevitably had an adverse effect on the nation’s legal exports. Drug dollars may have helped Colombia maintain its exemplary record of foreign-debt service, although it can be argued that even this apparent benefit was offset by a loss of revenues from legitimate business and by the increase in police and security expenditures. By purchasing protection from government officials as well as guerrillas or paramilitaries, primary figures in the industry fostered official corruption, and by their willingness to use violent intimidation when corruption was not enough, they further demoralized the weak criminal justice system.

Data as of 2010

Last Updated: January 2010

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Colombia was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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