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Colombia: Drugs and Society
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Drugs and Society


In the 1980s, Colombia achieved international notoriety as a major narcotics trafficking center. Nonetheless, the country's involvement with drugs was rooted farther back in history. As in Bolivia and Peru, although on a smaller scale, Colombia's indigenous populations had grown and chewed coca for thousands of years. Marijuana cultivation, in contrast, was a much more recent phenomenon. It arrived in Colombia along the Caribbean coast via Panama during the first decade of the twentieth century. By the 1930s, limited cultivation had begun among the Costeño black population centered on Barranquilla; urban criminals there routinely smoked marijuana. During World War II, experiments with hemp cultivation designed to increase fiber production for the war effort substantially expanded its cultivation.

The real takeoff of Colombian marijuana production began in the mid- and late 1960s as a result of the growing demand generated by the United States market. By the early 1970s, Colombia had emerged as a major United States supplier, although most of the market remained in the hands of Mexican traffickers. When in the early 1970s the United States tightened up drug enforcement along the United States-Mexican border and the Mexican state launched a major drive against its domestic producers, the epicenter of marijuana production in the hemisphere rapidly shifted to Colombia, especially to the Guajira Peninsula and the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. By the end of the decade, Colombia accounted for about 70 percent of the marijuana reaching the United States from abroad. Between 30,000 and 50,000 small farmers along Colombia's Caribbean coast came to depend directly on marijuana cultivation for their livelihood, while at least another 50,000 Colombians -- including seasonal pickers, transporters, guards, and bankers -- made a living from it.

The trade proved to be an important source of new wealth for the Caribbean coast, providing the population with income, comforts, and a degree of economic stability that they had never before enjoyed. The Caribbean port cities of Barranquilla, Santa Marta, and Riohacha, in particular, experienced unprecedented prosperity. At the same time, however, the Guajira Peninsula experienced a dramatic upsurge in drug-related violence and a concomitant disintegration of local police and judicial institutions as the result of corruption and bribery. Local food production declined as tens of thousands of hectares were converted to marijuana cultivation. Farmers engaged in growing traditional crops such as bananas found labor more expensive and in short supply. Inflation was stimulated, especially in land markets, as drug barons bid up prices. Many legitimate businesses, including banks, hotels, airlines, restaurants, and casinos, were bought up by the mafiosos and used for laundering illicit profits.

The Colombian cocaine trade followed in the footsteps of the marijuana traffickers. In the late 1960s, a relatively small cocaine smuggling network, largely under the control of exile Cuban criminal organizations based in Miami, sprang up. Coca was cultivated in small plots by Paez Indians in the San Jorge Valley in the department of Cauca in southwestern Colombia and in the Cordillera Occidental. Smuggling was carried out largely by individual carriers, or "mules," who transported a few kilograms at a time using commercial airlines.

In the early 1970s, as demand for cocaine expanded rapidly in the United States, the limited raw coca supplies produced in Colombia were augmented with coca paste imported from Bolivia and Peru, refined in "kitchen laboratories" in Colombia, and smuggled into the United States. The 1973 Chilean military coup that deposed President Salvador Allende Gossens also proved to be a severe blow to the Chilean criminal gangs involved in the cocaine trade in that country. When the military government of General Agusto Pinochet Ugarte clamped down, many Chilean "chemists" fled Chile and ended up swelling the ranks of the nascent smuggling and refining networks in Colombia and Miami. In addition, two Colombians -- Carlos Lehder Rivas and Jorge Luis Ochoa Vásquez -- worked with the Medellín criminal networks in the mid-1970s to transform the cocaine transportation system from small-time mule activities into huge airlift operations.

By late 1977, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had opened a file under the name "Medellín Trafficking Syndicate." Violence was an integral part of the operations of the Medellín syndicate from the start. As the organization grew in size, power, and wealth, it also grew in ruthlessness and violence. After first establishing their dominance on the South American side of the market, in 1978 and 1979 the Medellín drug bosses turned their attention to control of wholesale distribution in the United States. Thus began a period of violence in South Florida known as "the Cocaine Wars." It peaked in 1981 with a reported 101 drug- related murders in that year.

As the violence subsided in late 1981 and afterward, what emerged was a loosely organized criminal organization known as the Medellín Cartel. In effect, by installing their own middlemen in Miami, the Colombians "forward integrated" their operations and thus were able to capture additional profits. By reinvesting their profits in the business, they were able to expand and streamline production in Colombia and farther south in the Andes. They also purchased bigger and better airplanes and boats for transporting drugs, purchased more sophisticated electronic communications devices and radar to escape detection, and paid huge sums in bribes for protection to law enforcement officials in Colombia, the United States, and elsewhere.

By the early 1980s, the marijuana traffic was already being eclipsed by the cocaine trade in terms of the wealth and power associated with it. Cocaine also generated criminal organizations that were more profitable, more vertically integrated, more hierarchical in structure, and more ruthless in their systematic use of bribery, intimidation, and assassination than the marijuana traffickers. Although Colombia had long been accustomed to extraordinarily high levels of violence, the rise of the drug mafia provoked a qualitative change. Relying on paid assassins, locally known as sicarios, Colombia's drug lords not only fought among themselves but also launched a systematic campaign of murder and intimidation against Colombia's government authorities intent upon extraditing them to the United States. In the process, they effectively paralyzed the country's system of justice and drove scores of prominent Colombians from all walks of life out of the country and into self-imposed exile. They also contributed significantly to the "devaluation" of life throughout Colombia and converted murder and brutality into a regular source of income for some sectors of society.

Unlike marijuana money, which was concentrated along the Caribbean coast, cocaine money made its way into the major metropolitan areas, especially Barranquilla, Medellín, Cali, and, to a lesser extent, Bogotá. Along with their enormous economic power, the drug lords reached out for a larger quota of political power. Several, like Lehder, bought interests in local radio stations and newspapers. Others, like Pablo Escobar Gavíria, sought to create patron-client followings in the cities by handing out cash to the poor, building low-income housing in the slums, or purchasing sports teams and constructing sports stadiums. A number contributed to political campaigns. Lehder went so far as to create his own Latino Nationalist Party and to publicize his hybrid political ideology (a combination of Colombian and Latin American nationalism, leavened with elements of fascism) through his newspaper, Quindio Libre. In 1982 Escobar was actually elected as an alternate congressman on a Liberal Party slate in his home department of Antioquia.

In addition to corrupting the political and economic systems, narcotics trafficking generated a growing domestic drug problem. In the early 1980s, there developed among Colombian youths a widespread addiction to basuco. A highly contaminated, addictive, and damaging form of cocaine normally smoked with marijuana or tobacco, basuco was dumped by the cocaine smugglers on the Colombian market because it was not of "export" quality. Sold cheap, it soon became more popular in many cities than marijuana, leaving hundreds of thousands of addicts in its wake, many suffering from permanent nervous disorders.

(For readers interested in scholarly works in English on Colombian society, T. Lynn Smith's Colombia: Social Structure and the Process of Development provides an overview of the profound changes in the country's traditional agrarian social structures during the twentieth century up to the mid-1960s. Orlando Fals Borda's Peasant Society in the Colombian Andes is a classic case study of the impact of modernization on Colombia's rural communities in the 1950s and early 1960s. In Internal Colonialism and Structural Change in Colombia, A. Eugene Havens and William L. Flinn bring together a set of essays that probe the causes and consequences of Colombia's accelerated transformation from a rural to an urban society during the 1960s. Rakesh Mohan's The People of Bogotá provides a case study of the changing internal structure of the nation's burgeoning cities and the problems associated with rapid urban growth at the end of the 1970s. The World Bank's Colombia: Economic Development and Policy under Changing Conditions presents an authoritative synthesis of Colombia's principal socioeconomic characteristics, trends, and public policies as of the mid-1980s. R. Albert Berry and Miguel Urrutia's Income Distribution in Colombia explores how the benefits of Colombia's rapid economic growth in the post-World War II era were distributed by regions and strata in the mid-1970s. Urrutia's Winners and Losers in Colombia's Economic Growth of the 1970s revises and updates his earlier work with Berry through the end of the 1970s. The changing role of the Catholic Church in Colombia in the 1980s is discussed by Daniel Levine in Religion and Politics in Latin America. On public health conditions and trends in the 1980s, Volume II of the Pan American Health Organization's Health Conditions in the Americas, 1981-1984, is informative. Bruce Michael Bagley's "Colombia and the War on Drugs" gives an analysis of the scope and impact of illicit drug consumption and trafficking in Colombia in the 1980s. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

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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