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Stacks of Cocaine.

Illegal drug trade in Colombia ( ) refers to the practice of producing and distributing illegal drugs with psychoactive effects in the Republic of Colombiamarker. Colombia has had four major drug trafficking cartels which eventually created a new social class and influenced several aspects of Colombian culture. Coca, marijuana and other drugs had been part of the lifestyle of some indigenous, but the worldwide demand of psychoactive drugs during the 1960s and 1970s eventually increased the production and processing of these in Colombia. Prohibition laws were implemented in the United Statesmarker and Colombia to quell the perceived negative effects of drugs in society and to punish those who either possessed, produced or commercially distributed illegal drugs for profit.

Since the establishment of the War on Drugs, the United States and European countries have provided financial, logistical and tactical aid to the government of Colombia in order to implement plans to combat the illegal drug trade. The most notable of these programs has been the Plan Colombia which also intended to combat terrorist organizations producing illegal drugs in Colombia. Despite these programs Colombia remains the leading producer of coca with approximately 70% of the total share and dominates approximately 90% of the cocaine processing market in the world.


Prohibition of drugs in Colombia was based on the introduction of prohibition laws in the United Statesmarker with the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 which prohibited the production and consumption of opiates and cocaine, in 1937 added marijuana, tobacco and alcohol and later on a variety of stimulant, depressant, and hallucinogenic drugs between 1965 and 1968.

Some psychoactive drugs were already grown in Colombia at limited level by local indigenous groups, who mostly employed marijuana and coca leafs ceremonial and traditional medical uses as part of their culture.

Marijuana Bonanza

The drug consumption boom of the 1960s and 70s in the United States and Europe increased demand and triggered a mass production of Marijuana in several countries, including Colombia, where it was grown mostly on the northern coast, next to the Caribbean Sea, by groups of what came to be known as "marimberos", from "marimba" the nickname they gave to the plant.

To counter increasing production and consumption, the government of the United States and the government of Colombia along with other countries initiated a campaign called the "War on Drugs".

The Black Tuna Gang was a Miamimarker-based Colombian marijuana-trafficking group. It was responsible for bringing in over 500 tons of marijuana over a 16-month period in the mid-70s.

Drug Cartels in Colombia

With prohibition, established producers and traffickers formed armed and clandestine cartels. During the 1980s, as demand increased, the cartels expanded and organized into major criminal conglomerates usually headed by one or several kingpins as in the case of the Medellin Cartel and the North Coast Cartel, along with federation-style groups such as the Cali Cartel and Norte del Valle Cartel.

Medellin Cartel

The Medellin Cartel led by Pablo Escobar established a ruthless organization, kidnapping or murdering those who interfered with its objectives. The Medellin Cartel was responsible for the murdering of numerous people including government officials, politicians, law enforcement members, journalists, relatives of these or innocent bystanders. The cartel sometimes cooperated with guerrilla groups such as the M-19, to process and protect illegal drugs. When conflicts emerged between the Medellin Cartel and the guerrillas, the cartel also promoted the creation of paramilitary groups.

The cartel originally imported most coca from Boliviamarker and Perumarker, processing it into cocaine inside Colombia and then distributing it through most of the trafficking routes and distribution points in the U.S., including Florida, California and New York.

The pressure mounted by the US and Colombian governments to counter them led to the cartel's destruction, with key associates being gunned down by police and military forces or turning themselves into authorities in exchange for lenient prison terms.

Cali Cartel

The Cali Cartel, also known as "Cali's Gentlemen," was based in southern Colombiamarker, around the city of Calimarker and the Valle del Cauca Department. The Cali Cartel was founded by the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, Gilberto and Miguel, as well as associate José Santacruz Londoño. The Cali Cartel originally began as a ring of kidnappers known as Las Chemas. The profits of kidnapping helped finance the ring's move to drug trafficking, originally beginning in Marijuana and eventually spreading to Cocaine. The cartel's estimated revenue would eventually reach an estimated $7 billion a year. The cartel's influence also spread to the political and justice system. It also played a role in the manhunt that led to the death of Pablo Escobar, helping form the vigilante group "Los Pepes", which worked alongside members of the government's elite Bloque de Busqueda, exchanging information on the whereabouts of Escobar and key figures in the Medellín Cartel.

After the collapse of the cartel, it was discovered it was wiretapping phone calls made into and out of Bogotámarker, and was engaged in money laundering using numerous front companies spread throughout Colombia.

Norte del Valle Cartel

The Norte del Valle Cartel, or North Valley Cartel, is a drug cartel which operates principally in the north of the Valle del Cauca department of Colombiamarker. It rose to prominence during the second half of the 1990s, after the Cali Cartel and the Medellín Cartel fragmented, and was known as one of the most powerful organizations in the illegal drugs trade. The chiefs of the Norte del Valle cartel included Diego León Montoya Sánchez, Wilber Varela and Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía. Of the original leaders of the cartel, Wilber Varela was the last remaining member being sought by the authorities, but was found dead on January 31 2008.

The Norte del Valle cartel is estimated to have exported more than 1.2 million pounds – or 500 metric tons – of cocaine worth in excess of $10 billion from Colombia to Mexico and ultimately to the United States for resale. Indictments filed in the United States charge the Norte del Valle cartel with using violence and brutality to further its goals, including the murder of rivals, individuals who failed to pay for cocaine, and associates who were believed to be working as informants. Leaders of the Norte del Valle cartel were further alleged to have bribed and corrupted Colombian law enforcement and Colombian legislators to, among other things, attempt to block the extradition of Colombian narcotics traffickers to the United States for further prosecution. According to the indictments filed in the United States, members of the Norte del Valle cartel even conducted their own wiretaps in Colombia to intercept the communications of rival drug traffickers and Colombian and United States law enforcement officials.

The cartel is believed to have employed the services of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary organization internationally classified as a terrorist organization, to protect the cartel’s drug routes, its drug laboratories, and its members and associates. The AUC is one of the 37 Foreign Terrorist Organizations identified by the U.S. State Department in 2004.

North Coast Cartel

The North Coast Cartel was based in the Colombian city of Barranquillamarker by the Caribbean coast and was headed by Alberto Orlandez-Gamboa "Caracol" (the snail) considered as ruthless as Pablo Escobar. The organization transshipped significant amounts of cocaine to the United States and Europe via the smuggling routes it controlled from Colombia’s North Coast through the Caribbean. As head of the organization, Gamboa depended on his close associates to conduct the organization’s operations and to insulate himself. As is typical with many Colombia-based organizations, Gamboa compartmentalized his business dealings. In addition, the success of Caracol’s Barranquilla-based drug trafficking organization was attributed, in part, to the respect the drug organization received from other traffickers operating on Colombia’s North Coast. DEA Intelligence indicated that traffickers paid taxes to Gamboa’s organization in order to be allowed to ship drugs out of the North Coast. His influence in this region was so strong that traffickers even asked him for permission before conducting assassinations. On June 6, 1998, Caracol was arrested in Barranquilla, as a result of an ongoing joint investigation between DEA’s Barranquilla Resident Office and the Colombian National Police. After his arrest, Caracol immediately was flown to Bogota, Colombia, where he was held on murder, kidnapping, and terrorism charges. He was extradited to the United States in August 2000. On March 13, 2003, Caracol pleaded guilty to participating in a narcotics trafficking conspiracy that smuggled tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into New York and other cities. His plea was announced on the morning he was to go on trial in Federal District Court in Manhattan after losing a crucial appellate ruling. With the capture of Gamboa the North Coast Cartel structure was later dismantled by the Colombian National Police.


Perhaps the greatest threat posed to the Medellín Cartel and the other traffickers was the implementation of an extradition treaty between the United States and Colombia. It allowed Colombia to extradite any Colombian suspected of drug trafficking to the US and to be put on trial there for their crimes. This was a major problem for the Cartel since the drug traffickers had little access to their local power and influence in the US, and a trial there would most likely lead to imprisonment. Among the staunch supporters of the extradition treaty were Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Police Officer Jaime Ramírez and numerous Supreme Court Judges.

However, the Cartel applied a "bend or break" strategy towards several of these supporters. When attacks against the police began to cause major losses, some of the major drug lords themselves were temporarily pushed out of Colombia, going into hiding while they ordered cartel members to take out key supporters of the extradition treaty.

Influence in Government and politics

Influence of Medellin Cartel

During the 1980s, the Medellin Cartel leader Pablo Escobar, already a millionaire but of unknown assets, attempted and achieved to enter into the Colombian political environment through the political movement of liberal leader Luis Carlos Galán named New Liberalism to ascend in the social stratus of the Colombian society. Escobar was sponsored throughout his political career by congressman Alberto Santofimio, whom he served as second runner up in Congress. After Galán discovered the precedence of Escobar's wealth, he rejected him from his political movement and pushed for an extradition treaty with the United States.

Influence of Cali Cartel

Influence in the armed conflict

During the 1980s the Medellin Cartel led by Pablo Escobar was at its height and the U.S. and Colombian governments were moving towards enforcing laws regarding the illegal drug trade. The Medellin Cartel associated with 19th of April Movement (M-19) guerrilla among others to rely on them the production and processing of the illegal drugs. The guerrillas saw in the illegal drug trade a form of financing their guerrilla movement which had been collapsing since the fall of the Soviet Unionmarker (USSR), their financial backbone and provider of weapons and doctrine. Other guerrillas such as FARC and ELN followed the same example and also began collecting taxes on small illegal drug trafficking organizations to improve their financial stability.

The guerrillas decided to take over the illegal drug business in Colombia since it represented the best way to finance their war against the Colombian government and also recurred to kidnappings of druglord family member in order to pressure them for a ransom. The drug cartels decided to protect themselves from the guerrilla threats and created armed groups of their own. With the fall of the two main drug trafficking cartels of Medellin and Cali in the 1990s, some of organizations that inherited their drug routes were members of the newly formed Norte del Valle Cartel, as well as members of the FARC, ELN, EPL guerrillas and their opposing paramilitary groups.



Plan Colombia

Drug production

Between 1993 and 1999 Colombia became the main producer of coca in the world along with cocaine, and one of the major exporters of heroin.


The effects of cocaine production range from environmental damage to effects on education, health and the country's economy.

The environment is damaged through deforestation caused by clearing fields for cultivation. Soil erosion and chemical pollution also have effects on Colombia. The issues are difficult to address because of the wealth and power of drug traffickers.

Many plantations provide prostitutes to sustain their employees. Sexually transmitted diseases are spread at a rapid pace and contribute to the workers inability to heal from the flesh wounds and their incapability of survival outside of this environment.

The few positive outcomes from the manufacturing of cocaine include temporarily providing a job for a family struggling financially and raising Colombia’s GDP and standard of living.

See also


  2. El plan colombia y sus consecuencias en Ecuador Accessed 29 August 2007.
  3. PBS Frontline: Drug wars - The Medellin Cartel Accessed 29 August 2007.
  4. DEA: Extradition of Caracol (2000) Accessed 29 August 2007.
  5. Revista Semana: El General de los Secretos Accessed 29 August 2007.
  6. From Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, “Cocaine and the Economic Deterioration of Bolivia” pp. 412-423, reprinted with permission: Jack McIver Weatherford. Simpkins, Karen.

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