Alvaro Camacho Guizado

Andrés López Restrepo[1]




Marijuana, coca and poppy growing is an issue which has aroused considerable controversy in Colombia. This is not surprising.  The narcotics traffic, phenomenon to which illicit-crop growing owes its complexity and significance, constitutes the most outstanding feature of what Fernand Braudel would term Colombia's current historical conjuncture.  Indeed, the speed with which the narcotics phenomenon has developed since the mid 1970s has precipitated radical changes in  Colombia's economy, society, politics and culture; and has largely contributed to fashioning the country's current national profile.


Drug trafficking has compounded the preexistent institutionalized social and political violence in Colombia by injecting it with its own doses of terrorism and mass assassination of opponents, competitors, officials and political and social activists. It has fueled the creation and/or consolidation of professional criminal organizations entrusted with settling accounts, eliminating obstacles and increasing the enormous profits to be had from this business. Gunmen recruited by narcotics traffickers have raised the homicide rates in some cities and enlisted large numbers of young people from the poorer quarters as sicarios (hired killers), and for general delinquency purposes. These youngsters are now facing the serious difficulty of freeing themselves from these activities.


The drug lords also kindled and financed paramilitary groups which have opened the way to the process of territorial appropriation and expansion whereby small landowners are evicted and agricultural lands are converted into extensive cattle-raising pastures. They have instigated forms of local organization where terrorism and the physical elimination of opponents and enemies are the norm, thus promoting public order models based on brutal armed domination.


The new monies from the narcotics business have leveraged the military capacity of Colombia´s insurgency -quick to realize that these funds could serve as fresh sources of income to finance their war efforts. As was to be expected, drug traffickers have made alliances with local landowners in order to stamp out the insurgent threat and consolidate their control over different parts of the country. They have thus turned large swaths of the country into war zones where the principal victims have been civilians submitted to extrajudicial killings and displacement. This conjunction of factors has only heightened the country's civil strife and made all possibilities of peace and democracy even more remote.


The narcotics traffic has also contributed to narrowing what was already a relatively closed social structure where ascending social mobility is sorely limited.  It served to stimulate modes of social promotion rooted in corruption, intimidation and the use of trustees or shadow owners, who would in time serve to legitimize the traffickers.  The potential to generate profits beyond any previously imagined encouraged an ethics of easy money and of conspicuous social success. Attempts to legalize narcotics profits were conducive to forging dense social networks that involved lawyers, architects, politicians, merchants, artists, brokers, and last but not least, experts in the art of laundering and legitimizing these assets and their owners. The most momentous accomplishment of these attempts at legitimization was the ability to influence the election of a presidential candidate, whose legitimacy was of course thereupon suspect.  In short, the drug lords spared no effort towards participating in contouring Colombia's social landscape.


As regards the productive sector, the growing demand for illicit drugs in the wealthier countries, particularly the United States, has induced changes in the patterns of landed property concentration and in the intended role of the agrarian sector. Further repercussions are mass migrations and the expansion of the agricultural frontier to areas, which, although unfit for traditional agriculture, are suitable for producing raw materials for illegal drugs. Doubtlessly, this process has noticeably altered Colombia's demography and geography. It has turned a large portion of the country's peasant population into producers of raw materials for narcotics, making them accomplices to this illegal process; that which implicates the social identity accorded them and the way their situation is addressed.  Indeed, in recent years, the coca-rich regions of the country have had to suffer the presence of the conflicting armies fighting for territorial control.  They have also had to bear aerial spraying with highly toxic products and the government's "carrot and stick" approach, all of which has engendered an extremely traumatic relationship with a State that has favored eradication measures over more reasonable alternatives.


The traffic of narcotics has conditioned the manner by which Colombia has entered the international community. It has branded Colombia with a stigma whose effects have handicapped both the country's performance and identity as a nation.  It, more ill-fatedly, made Colombia an object of U.S. concern -with the corresponding demands and need to respond.  By signaling out Colombia as a significant threat to its national security, the United States has redoubled its requirements regarding what is expected of this neighbor. The strict agenda designed to eliminate the production and transshipping of illicit drugs has entailed significant changes in Colombia's institutions. Pressure has been exerted on the judicial system, the National Prisons Institute and the National Police to increase efficiency and comply with U.S. purposes and objectives, irrespective of whether they coincide with those of Colombia or not. In an increasingly globalized and unipolar world, the United States has made Colombia acutely aware of its vulnerability and bounded sovereignty.


I.                                  SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC DIMENSIONS



I.1 Production


As of the mid 1970s, and more noticeably so in the 1980s, Colombia became an important exporter of marijuana and cocaine. By the 1990s, Colombia, while still maintaining a leading transshipping role, was producing cocaine and cultivating opium poppy.




Marijuana production, which during the 1980s was not abundant, seems to have increased between 1992 and 1993. However, the range covered by the available data, somewhere from 5,000 to 15,000 hectares, renders it difficult to make precise estimates. It seems reasonable to estimate that the areas cultivated have stayed at 5,000 or 6,000 hectares.




According to Colombian government data, coca cultivation increased by 70% between 1991 and 1996, rising from 37,500 to 67,200 hectares. The southeastern departments of Caquetá and Putumayo were particularly dynamic. These zones witnessed increases of 151% and 218%, respectively. Coca-growing in the San Lucas mountain range -in the northern Bolívar department- which in 1991 accounted for 14% of the country's coca crop, receded as of 1995.  Accordingly, during 1995 and 1996 three neighboring departments, Guaviare, Caquetá and Putumayo, situated in the transition zone from the Andes to the Amazon region, were producing all of the cocaine grown in Colombia. 


As in the case of all illicit crops, the estimates vary considerably -from 35,000 to 165,000 coca-cultivated hectares. Nevertheless, independent researchers agree that official data falls short of the facts. The truth of the matter is that since traffickers have responded to spraying by expanding coca cultivation to remote areas, it is impossible to know for certain the extent of the areas cultivated and the dynamics of this process.[2] Sergio Uribe, for example, estimated that by 1994 there were approximately from 70,000 to 83,500 hectares of coca.[3]  This estimate is considerably higher than that of the government, which estimated coca cultivation at 45,000 hectares. Comparatively, the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) reports that "¨[A]according to Colombian government sources, the detected area under cultivation rose from 12,000-13,000 hectares in the early 1990s to (...) 45,000 in 1994."[4] 

The Caquetá department alone would be cultivating from 50,000 to 60,000 hectares[5], while the government estimates this amount at only 21,600 hectares.  Furthermore, official figures do not take into consideration what has occurred in other regions. Estimates are that in the Macarena massif there are already 10,000 hectares under coca cultivation and that certain areas around the Chocó and Antioquia Darien, near Panamá, are also being planted.


Opium Poppy


Poppy fields increased from 2,028 to 6,300 hectares between 1991 and 1996, the equivalent of a 210% increase, whereas heroin production multiplied tenfold from 1991 to 1992 and stayed there until 1994. Subsequent crop reductions are due to government eradication operations.  Some experts maintain that in fact opium poppy cultivation has not dropped -contrary to what the government says- but rather that it has stayed at 15,000 to 20,000 hectares.  




According to the Colombian government, coca crop yields remained constant from 1992 to 1996. Some government officials maintain that one hectare planted with coca will yield about 2,500 pounds of coca leaf (the equivalent of 1.25 metric tons). Other sources, however, indicate that one hectare of coca in Colombia yields an average of 800 kilograms (0,8 metric tons) of dry coca leaf. 

As regards cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) production, the differences are not so large. These same government officials maintain that one hectare of coca yields 1.5 kilos of semi-processed cocaine base, while other sources place this estimate at 1.6 kilos. Both sources agree that coca crops are harvested four or more times per year, and that there are differences depending on the variety of the coca bush,  the location and  the efficiency of the farming practices used.  It would seem that government figures do not take into consideration variations in number of harvests and plant varieties when calculating potential coca-leaf yields and cocaine HCl production.

At any rate, if one considers, as affirmed by the Colombian government, that coca crops can be harvested at least four times per year, then potential yield and production figures would have to be multiplied by four. In any case, these figures correspond to potential production and do not take into consideration eradication results. Other estimates confirm the fact that yearly coca-leaf yields per hectare surpass government valuations.  Thus, while some experts maintain that one hectare planted with coca yields about 6,000 kilos of coca leaves per year, others maintain higher productivity estimates.  According to the latter, coca crops can be harvested once every 45 days. That is, 8 times a year instead of four. In their opinion, an hectare yields 2,750 pounds of coca leaves and 25 pounds of sun-dried coca leaves yield 12 grams of coca paste, which means that 1.32 kilos are produced every month and a half, in which case an hectare yields the equivalent of 10.56 kilos of coca paste per year.

As regards poppy, opium-base producing crops in the Huila department ( in the eastern slopes of the Central Cordillera Mountain) are said to yield 5 kilos of latex (wet opium) per hectare every six months. The quantity of heroin per latex gum is one to ten. In any case, one hectare planted with opium poppy is considered a large unit, larger than that of the average peasant.

Some reportings indicate that coca and opium poppy production has augmented thanks to the introduction of higher-yielding varieties, more efficient processing techniques, greater availability of precursor chemicals and, as concerns coca crops, planting in more fertile areas.  On the other hand, other experts maintain that, in the coca-growing region of southern Caquetá, dried-coca leaf yields have remained stable whereas in some poppy-growing regions latex yields have dropped.  The peasants seem to think that this is due to soil exhaustion and seedbed impoverishment, since seeds and soil are not periodically renovated. They also attribute the decline to the scant use of fertilizers inasmuch as some peasants consider it a wasteful expense due to the risk of spraying.

The difficulty of accurately estimating the number of hectares under cultivation and their potential yield and production renders it hard to know for certain the actual amounts available for export -that is, the quantity left over once local demand is satisfied and seizures effected. Rocha, for one, in order to simplify matters, supposes that internal consumption and overall seizures of marijuana and heroin are insignificant, and, using Uribe's figures, he estimates the amounts of marijuana and heroin exported as equal to those produced[6].  Cocaine estimates have to be calculated otherwise, inasmuch as Colombian narco-enterpreneurs also import coca paste from Perú and Bolivia for processing and exportation to consumer markets.  The difficulty lies in estimating the total amount of coca paste imported and processed to make cocaine HCI. This seems even more complicated than estimating the extent of the cultivated areas and their output. In consequence, Rocha depicts two scenarios -minimal and maximal- for cocaine exports. In the first case, cocaine exports from 1985 to 1994 fluctuated between 31 tons in 1991 and 85 tons in 1987. In the latter case, cocaine exports were on the order of 244 tons in 1985 and 726 in 1992.


Eradication and crop substitution


Crop substitution alternatives are grounded on two assumptions, which are not necessarily true.  Firstly, on the presumption that the problem originated with the supply of illicit drugs, and that in order to put an end to the demand it is necessary to eliminate the source.  This means eradicating marijuana, coca and poppy plants. That is, eliminating the stationary targets as opposed to trying to destroy precursor chemicals and the work involved in producing narcotics, which is much more difficult. Eradication alternatives are based secondly on the assumption that peasants and indigenous peoples will willingly cooperate as long as they can put their lands and labor to legal use, even if this means diminished revenues. That, as a result, only the small landowners and tenants should have access to alternative development initiatives whereas, as the government sees it, commercial plantations should receive no compensation whatsoever. This policy implicitly makes an ethical distinction between large growers, considered avowed criminals, and peasant farmers, who are forced to break the law by reason of their poverty.[7]

            The President's Office has successively established two agencies charged with implementing crop substitution and the alternative development strategy: the National Rehabilitation Plan (PNR) and the National Plan for Alternative Development (PLANTE).  In 1985, the PNR initiated its first crop-substitution project in southern Cauca, on the eastern slopes of the Central Cordillera Mountains.  It then coordinated programs in the southern part of the country, in Nariño, Guaviare, Caquetá, and the Medio and Bajo Caguán, as well as in the poppy-growing areas in the western Tolima and Cauca departments. In 1994, a new agency was created to manage crop substitution programs. This agency, known as the Plante, is ascribed to the Social Solidarity Network, (formerly PNR). It is a comprehensive program which proposes illicit crop abandonment or substitution in exchange for markets for the resulting new products or services. It contemplates risk capital and technical assistance in production, product processing and marketing. The UNDCP has lent considerable support to these initiatives.

On February 7, 1995, when the Plante´s first manager took office, President Ernesto Samper promised to eradicate illicit crops within a two-year period -underscoring the fact that the peasants would be covered by the corresponding alternative development programs. This commitment, made within the framework of U.S. decertification of Colombia's counternarcotics efforts, disregarded experiences elsewhere and the inherent difficulties in illicit-crop eradication.[8]

There are other oversights, regarding for example, the positive correlation between the distance from the crop-growing unit to the urban centers, and the dimensions of the enterprise.  Drug eradication programs which focus on the areas located near the chief municipalities, tend to favor the more prosperous growers. As a result, allocative incomes end up as incentives for the large entrepreneurs. What's more, it is in all likelihood comparatively easier for large entrepreneurs to develop alternate sources in order to circumvent drug-component control policies.

Within the framework of this evaluation, further inconsistencies have been remarked.  Plante officials maintain that the social nature of the problem is barely taken into consideration, particularly as is the case with the National Police whose top priority is to secure aerial spraying. Moreover, police activities tend to hamper the Plante's work since it is quite difficult for the peasant farmers to reconcile the divergencies between an aid program, and one that somehow goes against community-based needs.

To begin with, illicit coca and poppy are highly remunerative crops and it is highly unlikely that legal crops could generate equivalent revenues. Secondly, drug-growing fields are generally to be found in those areas over which the government has no control, or areas that do not have the required infrastructure to support alternative economic activities. Thirdly, it is almost impossible for the State to keep the peasants, once their crops eradicated, from planting illicit crops anew in uncultivated common land. Another likelihood is that of peasants planting illicit crops in order to take advantage of Plante subsidies.  Lastly, regional and local government officials often connive with growers or traffickers hindering program implementation.

Furthermore, a substitution program which does not have a long-term perspective is destined to fail unless the amount of resources committed is exponentially increased. There are several reasons for this: should alternative development programs be successful in one area, crop-growing will just move elsewhere in order to satisfy the demand, and, should a significant amount of the supply be eradicated, prices would go up and this would just be one more incentive to renew the business.

The indigenous people have been particularly affected. They fear for the impact of illicit crops on their social organization, and they are especially vulnerable to aerial spraying since they plant coca and poppy crops on the same land used for subsistence farming.  Consequently, they have let it be known that they are willing to eradicate once the program starts helping them to market with due regard to indigenous ways. They, much like all the other social instances concerned, are hoping for effective governmental action: the search for feasible and concrete alternative development strategies and implementation. Although indigenous communities in the Cauca, Putumayo, Guaviare, Caquetá, Vaupés y Guainía, have shown a willingness to participate in the Plante for indigenous communities and substitute their crops for nontraditional ones, only the Paeces and Guambianos, both from the Cauca department, have signed agreements with the government and begun crop substitution.

The problem will persist, however, as long as illicit crops command higher prices than other crops. Especially when the infrastructure required for the marketing of substitute crops -transport routes, procurement centers, marketing programs that guarantee the sale of surplus licit farm produce- has not been developed. A case in point is the program initiated in the Huila department.  State officials, peasant leaders and big business promoted large-scale planting of lulo fruit for sale to sugar-processing industries whereupon the peasant farmers proceeded to substitute all their other crops for lulo.  However, once the crop was ready for harvest, the industries which had promoted the initiative decided to import a cheaper extract.  The peasants lost everything they had.

Some experts maintain that the success of crop substitution depends on program implementation:  over periods no shorter than 8 years for coca growing and 12 years for poppy growing, involving only those peasants tied to the land and not colonos (frontiersmen/settlers) and/or laborers working for narcotics traffickers, and integrating alternative development strategies with activities geared towards breaking the illicit-crops production-to-marketing cycle by taking action to stem the flow of precursor chemicals and buyers into illicit-crop growing areas.  This not only means an 8 to 10-year process, which by typical Colombian standards is way too long, but the fulfillment of other more difficult requirements.  How does one distinguish the peasant farmers from the colonos? Is it really feasible to carry out these interdiction activities without violating civil rights?  

Crop-eradication has had unforeseen outcomes. Eradication by aerial spraying has severe environmental repercussions, including the destruction of other crops. As a result, peasants go further up the mountain, clear protective vegetation, destroy genetic resources, and plant in remote, largely inaccessible areas.  In 1995, for example, there was an overall reduction in crops linked to a collapse of latex prices. Undoubtedly, the devastating effects of aerial fumigation has impelled peasants -at least some of them- to abandon their crops, however, the most powerful incentive for abandonment is price reduction of illicit produce, as in the case of latex in 1995. At the beginning (early nineties), a gram of latex sold for approximately US$1.80 (a kilo cost US$1,800) by 1995 a gram was selling for just US 20 cents.  Apparently, the alternative of chemically destroying crops, when not accompanied by feasible options, only pushes profitable illicit crop growing elsewhere thus multiplying the negative environmental effects of a nontraditional cultivation of this type of crop.[9]

The only way that alternative development can be a practicable option is if drug-growing inducements are eliminated. This means offering subsidies which are equivalent to the revenues obtained from growing these crops, and this to practically all of the growers in the areas concerned.  This is a very expensive agrarian-subsidies policy, but it is the only workable alternative.  Otherwise, the government will be obliged to eradicate by force, without awarding any type of compensation. This approach is both environmentally dangerous -it jeopardizes the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity- and socially unjust since it focuses its demands on the weakest link in the narcotics-traffick chain. The risks involved in this approach were evidenced in the 1996 peasant protest marches which resulted from the explosive social situation created by the government, expanded the social base for the insurgency, and forced the government itself to negotiate an agreement which it has failed to fulfill fully.


Environmental repercussions


Opium poppy is grown at 1,800 to 3,000 meters above sea level, in an ecoregion known as the Andean cloud forest, which is Colombia's watershed -72% of the country's hydrographic resources are to be found here. Coca growing in Colombia is mainly carried out somewhere between 0 and 500 meters above sea level, on the Amazon plains, in what is known as humid, subtropical forest and extremely humid subtropical forest.

 The government has insisted that both coca and poppy growing, and cocaine and opium production have a severe and irreparable impact on the ecosystems in which they are carried out.  Coca and opium poppy growing in Colombia are generally practiced in forested ecoregions, the country's watersheds.  As a result, the high altitude forest, now used for planting coca, is being deforested and stripped of all protective vegetation.  This vegetation, which is what prevents soil erosion from the impact of rain, winds, or water courses, is being either burned or destroyed by biocides (herbicides, pesticides or fungicides).

Generally speaking, planting one hectare of coca leads to the deforestation of four hectares of the Amazon jungle in southeastern Colombia. As regards poppy, one hectare means the loss of two and a half hectares of Andean cloud forest. Marijuana planting leads to the destruction of one and a half hectares per hectare cultivated.  It is estimated that up to now coca cultivation has caused the destruction of over 160,000 to 240,000 hectares of tropical forest in the Amazon and Orinoco biomes. Opium poppy cultivation in the Andean ecoregion has led to the destruction of approximately 60,000 to 100,000 hectares of the rich and fragile ecosystems of the Andean highland and temperate forests.  Deforested soils stripped of their protective vegetation in high rainfall areas become clayey, lateritic and sandy and solely suitable for extensive cattle raising, which, in turn, has a highly erosive impact on the environment. Since only large landowners can afford extensive cattle raising, a collateral effect of environmental damage is the fostering of land monopolization processes.

Furthermore, biocides, fertilizers, solid precursor chemicals and liquid precursors needed to process the coca leaf and opium gum pollute surface waters and other water sheds. Estimates are that the processing of the leaf yield from one hectare of coca produces a ton of chemical waste.[10] As a result, many of the surface waters of the Amazon and Orinoco river basin are endangered due to deforestation.  And those that manage to subsist are full of chemical poisons.

Comparatively, other studies estimate that, although current coca cultivation practices go back three decades, they are only answerable for 1/60 of the deforestation which has occurred in Colombia during this period[11]. As concerns the environmental impact of eradication, the government plays down the hazardous effects of aerial fumigation. A study by the Environmental Auditing Commission states:


"Areas under aerial spraying are sparsely inhabited and thus it is to be expected that the effects on the inhabitants will be minimal. Another circumstance which keeps humans from contact with the herbicide is the fact that the growers hide in the jungle as soon as they hear the Counternarcotics Police helicopters. Furthermore, aerial spraying is carried out in circumscribed areas.  Only illicit-crop fields are fumigated without affecting pasture lands, forests or licit crops since fumigation processes are controlled and guided by strict technical parameters guaranteed by permanent environmental auditing."[12]


Claims by government officials disregard that eradication sorties by spray aircraft often have to be carried out at high altitudes due to the insurgent threat. According to Greenpeace, "Glyphosate is one of the most toxic herbicides, with many species of wild plants being damaged or killed by applications of less than 10 micrograms per plant. Glyphosate can be more damaging to wild flora than many other herbicides, as aerial spraying with glyphosate can give average drifts of 1200 to 2500 feet and ground spraying with glyphosate may cause damage to sensitive plants up to 300 feet from the field sprayed."[13]  Colombian experts affirm having witnessed burnt licit crops and pastures as a result of aerial fumigation. They have heard peasant testimonies as to water pollution ensuing from aerial spraying. Health authorities, Regional Human Rights Ombudsmen (Defensorias Regionales del Pueblo) and other municipal officials express their findings regarding the effects of aerial spraying with glyphosate: skin burns in cattle; dermatitis and damage to human eyes, and gastrointestinal irritation; water pollution; contamination of primary forests, stubble and licit crops such as manioc, rubber and coffee plantations; and the death of fowl and livestock fetuses.  Under the authorization of the National Narcotics Council (Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes), the Antinarcotics Directorate of the Colombian National Police (Dirección Antinarcóticos de la Policía Nacional) performs manual, mechanical and chemical eradication. However, since manual and mechanical eradication procedures are more costly and tend to be dangerous in the zones controlled by the guerrilla -principally those under the control of the Colombian Revolutionary Forces (Fuerzas Revolucionarias de Colombia -FARC)- the Colombian government has decided to spray from the air with glyphosate.  According to the Colombian Health Ministry, glyphosate is a low-toxicity herbicide which is highly biodegradable.




Marijuana, coca paste and latex are bought by resellers at the farmgate. Those who are familiar with the situation in these areas maintain that there are two different coca markets. The local market which is made up of those farmers who plant small plots and sell their coca leaves to the richer peasants of the region, which then process the leaves in a rudimentary fashion and sell cocaine paste and low-quality cocaine to the dealers.  These dealers either sell it directly to local consumers or ship it to other cities for street distribution. A second market is that of the intermediaries who buy the coca leaves and take them to modern labs located in the area where the crop is processed for export. These labs are constantly moving for security reasons. Some indigenous farmers sell their coca paste to middlemen who take it to nearby "mom and pop" laboratories, or to other cities to be processed. Most of the coca production is for export. 

Distribution for local consumption takes on different forms. The domestic market is in the hands of resellers who shift most of the risk onto the street dealers, the people in constant touch with the consumers. Consumers, for their part, go to certain neighborhoods in both towns and cities; these are the appointed sectors for satisfying local demand. It is extremely difficult to know for sure how many intermediaries take part in the whole process, from processing to smuggling narcotics out of the country.  What is known is that generally, at the regional-municipal level there are two or three capos (leaders of the cartels) who are in charge of organizing leaf harvesting and coca processing. These people are financially influential and they are constantly accompanied by groups of armed men. The local capos or merchants sell their products to wholesalers who process and/or distribute them to the domestic market, or send shipments abroad.

The principal distribution centers are big cities like Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, Bucaramanga, Pereira and Barranquilla. Normally, as concerns the domestic market, a buyer purchases from 5 to 20 kilos of coca paste or cocaine from the labs and sells them to one or more middlemen who market the drug.  Formerly, cocaine and heroin were exported from rural airports.  Nowadays, however, the most common modes of conveyance are maritime, mainly via the Pacific Ocean.

One of the most important aspects -on which there is noticeable lack of research- is the distribution patterns in consumer countries. Reports indicate that Colombian cartels place the shipments at ports of entry, although they sometimes establish contacts with narcotics traffickers in other countries.  Current ties seem to be with Mexican organizations, who take care of transporting the merchandise. However, little is known regarding the number of transactions and the main participants involved.[14]

Upon the dissolution of the big cartels, small and medium-sized organizations took over the business. These new groups were not new to the business; they had prior nexuses to the cartels.  Their shipments, although smaller, are more numerous. In fact, the death and/or imprisonment of the drug lords raises serious questions regarding these new groups and the way they are organized. Further queries would refer to the fragmentation or dispersal -and displacement by Mexican, Peruvian and Bolivian organizations- of Colombian narcotics-trafficking organizations as a result of governmental efforts. 

One thing that seems clear is that the cartels and the subsisting organizations are constantly innovating by enhancing production technology and improving storing, transportation and money laundering schemes. They have also improved their vertical integration both at a national and international level, developed more sophisticated ways of getting past the law, and diversified into new regions and products. Drug-organization dynamics always seems to be one step ahead of law-enforcement efforts, following models easily recognizable by students of the nature and dynamics of modern organized crime[15]. One of the most widespread thesis is that of a mafia-type of organization. Empirical analyses in other countries have shown that illegal businesses survive thanks to trusts that can monopolize markets, and to the use of violence. The situation in Colombia has taken a peculiar turn:  the dismantlement of the Medellín and Cali cartels has fragmented the business. The only way to understand how the different strata in the organization work is on the premise that the so-called carteles are not pyramid-shaped structures but federations of organized-crime outfits under the leadership of, and answerable to, a capo.  In Colombia, after the disappearance or imprisonment of the big capos, unknown drug-entrepreneurs came to the fore and took charge of keeping up the distribution and exportation structure. This seems to indicate that for different reasons, the cartels are extremely dynamic organizations which are constantly recomposing themselves.

There is a chance that increased supply and reduced prices might be due to the difficulty of enforcing global control over the narcotics business which makes it easier for these new groups to acquire raw materials, use transshipping routes previously controlled by the cartels, have better access to international markets, and achieve more efficient fund management since smaller amounts are harder to detect. All of these changes in the dynamics of the narcotics business play a key role in explaining rising supply and falling prices.


         Economic impact


There have been various attempts to assess illicit-drugs market size and income distribution in Colombia.  Using different methodologies, these studies have come up with varied results.[16]  According to the UNDCP, the annual income of Colombian drug trafficking has been gauged by several researchers, who suggest that illegal drug industry profits have fluctuated between US$2 and 5 billion per year.  These estimates are based on Colombia value added (i.e., difference of export prices and domestic costs of cocaine manufacturing and trafficking) and are likely to underestimate the actual profits of Colombians involved in the illegal drug business in the USA, Bolivia, and Peru ¨[Thoumi 1995].  Furthermore, the accumulation of wealth to drug traffickers allows them to influence the normal development of the Colombian economy[17].


By applying data regarding the amount of opium produced and exported by Pakistan to coca growing in Colombia, it can be deduced that direct producers do not net more than 7% of the consumer-market value. This means that they do not earn more than 2% of the price paid on the street. Additionally, Francisco Thoumi, after cross-checking several sources, estimates that yearly inflows of drug revenues could be comparable to the size of the overall private sector investment in Colombia.[18]

Capitals from the illicit-drug business have gone notably into the rural areas of the country in the way of cattle and land acquisitions.  This has raised the price of land, construction costs, housing expenses and services in general.  In the Valle del Cauca department, prices went down drastically after the authorities started chasing the Cali Cartel. Since then, urban-land prices have fallen considerably as have rural-land prices, but less.  Economists are hesitant to affirm that Colombia´s current recession is due to the dismantlement of the so-called Cali Cartel.  Regional studies in the Valle del Cauca, however, highlight the impact of the narcotics traffic on the region's 1990s boom. Accordingly, the inverse is also possible. One could suggest that, since the narcotics traffic weighed heavily on the Valle del Cauca's economy, the current recession is due to the economic void generated as of the imprisonment of the leading members of the Cali Cartel.




The most recent and thorough study on illicit-drug consumption in Colombia was carried out by the Health Information and Study Center of the Fundación Santa Fe de Bogotá (Centro de Estudios e Información en Salud de la Fundación Santa Fe de Bogotá)[19]. This, the second nationwide study on the use of psychoactive and other controlled substances, found that 6.5% of the people in Colombia have consumed one or more of these controlled substances -marijuana, cocaine, base or basuco (the local version of "crack" cocaine), and opiates. "Four times more men consume illicit drugs than women.” [p.11], since 10.5% of the men indicated that they had consumed illicit drugs at one time or another in their lives while only 2.9% of the women said they had. The percentage of the people that said they had consumed illicit drugs is higher in the groups with more schooling, and it reaches the 11.1% level for university students.  The highest rates of drug use are found in the more urbanized areas, with notable differences from region to region:  12.3% of the people from Antioquia said they had consumed drugs, while only 2.7% of the people from the less- urbanized Eastern part of the country said they had.


            As to the drugs consumed, marijuana is the most popular:  5.4% of the people interviewed had consumed it at one time or another while only 1.6% of them had consumed cocaine, and 1.5% base/crack. All in all, 1.6% of the people interviewed said they had consumed illicit drugs in the past year.  Although this percentage is not large, it does add up to 400,000 people.  There is a positive correlation between illicit drug-consumption rates and drug availability. 47.6% of the people interviewed said it was easy or very easy to get marijuana while only 21.5% said it was difficult, very difficult or impossible.  For getting base/crack 36.7% thought it was easy and 26.5% said it was hard.  For cocaine, 20.7% thought it easy and 35.6% thought it difficult. About 80-90% of the people interviewed said these drugs were health hazards, that they generated family and legal problems and that they should not be legalized.

            Comparatively, the first survey, carried out in 1992[20], indicated higher licit-drugs consumption rates and lower illicit-drugs consumption. The 1996 survey indicates that less people are consuming licit drugs:  cigarette smoking went from 25.8% to 21.1% and alcohol drinking has gone from 74.6% to 60.3% between 1992 and 1996.  Meanwhile, consumption of illicit substances rose from 5.9% to 6.5% in these four years. More women would be consuming illicit drugs -the female population between the ages of 12 and 17, and working-age women. “The most obvious difference is that observed for the last year of the survey. A 0.8% prevalence increase is remarked and 0.2% new cases." [p.95]  “Overall-consumption increases for the last year are mainly attributed to increases in marijuana consumption, from 0.6% to 1.1%” [p. 96].

The survey has some drawbacks.  Its author admits that illicit-drug users living in institutions -prisons and health institutions-, and the homeless -where there is a higher incidence of drug consumption, were not included in the survey. Furthermore, since the questions refer to an activity which is considered illegal, people will obviously tend to understate consumption. More generally, Augusto Pérez states that illicit-drug consumption has been underestimated because "home surveys are not the best means to determine illicit-drug consumption in Colombia," and that, according to such data, "the consumption rates of illegal substances is minimal.  This does not coincide with data forthcoming from direct sources (requests for attention from different communities, schools and organizations)."

Pérez, who calls on other studies and on his previous personal experience with consumers to support his statements, says that marijuana consumption increased during the 5 to 10-year cycle which characterizes marijuana usage; that base/crack consumption has decreased; cocaine consumption has remained stable; and that consumption of all three substances has increased among young women. He foresees drug-consumption increases in the future. According to Pérez, the reasons for rising consumption are "the generalized disorganization of people's lives, particularly in urban environments”, a lack of goals, diminished communication between parents and offspring, and the scarcity of positive leadership.


The actors




Broadly speaking, the category "direct producers" covers two types of people.  First of all, the peasant farmers which include indigenous peoples, longtime farmgate residents and the colonos. The second type of direct producers are the “raspachines”, that is, the migrant workers who work as hired labor in the harvesting of the coca leaf or the incision of the poppy capsule. The expansion of illicit-crop growing has been particularly detrimental to indigenous communities.  Illicit coca-growing has disrupted their communal relations, their traditional economies and their culture. Indigenous people have several reasons for growing coca.  Among others, the fact that the coca leaf is a sacred and revered substance in their culture. The growing of the coca bush has inevitably led to their involvement in the narcotics traffic.  They have, as a consequence, become planters of other illicit crops which were not traditionally grown by indigenous Colombian communities. Other factors which contributed to their involvement in the traffic of narcotics are the weakness of the links between traditional indigenous economies and regional and national market economies, their strategic location in the lowlands and highlands of the frontier zones, and the lack of coordinated attention on the part of government agencies.

For their part, the colonos have been evicted from the central Andean regions of the country and have moved to the more marginal zones of the Andean Range where they either own or lease small plots of land. Their family structures are relatively consolidated and they have joined communal associations in a search to improve their standards of living.  Some of them have become community or political leaders and have managed to attain administrative posts in their areas[21]. The colonos' marginal status has contributed to making the consequences of the agrarian crisis, which has affected Colombia as of the mid 80s, even more severe in their case.  As a result, illicit crop-growing came as a way out.  It seemed the only means available for them to continue farming and raise their revenues above subsistence levels, even granting them the possibility of saving for lean times.

The “raspachines” or migrant laborers come both from the rural and urban areas. As opposed to the colonos, the raspachines are not seeking to preserve a way of life.  What they are basically looking for is higher wages. In some cases, they even manage to save up enough to buy or lease lands to plant their own coca or poppy crops.

Peasant farmers are much more receptive to official eradication and substitution programs than the raspachines. Peasants living in marginal zones are displaced populations struggling to preserve their agricultural way of life. To them illicit-crop growing has come as an answer. In any case, the issue is that increased illicit-drug consumption due to the enormous profits to be gained from this traffic is a source of strife in the areas dedicated to the production of these substances.  Neither the guerrilla groups nor the police have been able to control the violence in these areas.  In general, direct producers in those areas controlled by the insurgency always turn to the "local" guerrilla groups for conflict resolution and claims that justice be done.  They do, however, continue demanding that the State make itself felt with regards to economic issues such as loans and land distribution.

Other local actors are the merchants and landowners living in the chief towns of the colonization zones.  Many of them have improved their finances thanks to loans which they grant to direct producers, who are often forced to cede their lands and developments when unable to pay back the loan. Merchants thus expand their land holdings, which they use for extensive agriculture or, in some cases, for illicit-crop growing. Among the local actors can also be found the owners of small or medium-sized labs.  They participate in the initial processing of the coca leaf. They are the ones who can establish some sort of contact with the larger labs located elsewhere in Colombia, those which refine the product for export.

Lastly, there are the absentee producers and owners of illicit-crop fields in zones set apart from colonization processes and not attained by eradication programs.  These people contract hired laborers, thus inciting the destructive expansion of Colombia's agricultural frontier.  They are the ones who make the most money in the crop-growing phase while incurring the least risk. Some of them also own labs in Colombia or abroad and by so doing take part in the different stages of the productive process thus increasing their profits.


State agencies and officials


There seems to be adverse general agreement regarding the behavior of the Colombian Armed Forces in illicit-crop growing and production areas. It is a known fact that some members of the Armed Forces and National Police take part in the protection, transportation and handling of illicit drugs. The Colombian Army occasionally goes to illicit-crop areas where it combats the insurgent groups and sometimes engages in manual eradication. The National Police, on the other hand, is in these areas on a more regular basis. At any rate, there are areas where both the army and the police partake in the narcotics business by collecting informal taxes. Higher up in the hierarchy, the direct complicity and participation of public service agents has been remarked.

At any rate, peasants tend to be doubtful of the efforts made by the Plante.  They seem to think they are superficial and wanting in that they do not address the sector's structural problems. Other government agencies also carry out local associational activities through "mid-objectives" crop substitution programs. One example is the Plan Sur, which ensued in 1969 from negotiations between the national government and the coca peasants. It has been engaged in coordinating crop-substitution investments and loans, with little or no results.


Irregular Armed Forces


Although at the beginning the FARC opposed illicit-crop growing by the peasants, it soon decided to face facts. Guerrilla groups in Colombia have contributed to regulating social interaction in the municipalities where they continuously operate and where they act as a hegemonic power.  In some municipalities, they enforce environmental protection laws, demand that at least 2 hectares be dedicated to subsistence farming products for every hectare growing illicit  products, fix prices and charge resellers a 20% tax on transactions; and more generally, they mediate in all types of conflicts in the area.  Nowadays, according to the Counternarcotics Police, 30 FARC fronts y 6 National Liberation Army (ELN) fronts are involved in coca and poppy cultivation.

Paramilitary groups are organizations that depend heavily on the narcotics business. They differ from the guerrilla, though. These squads, created by the drug lords and backed by some within the official security forces, guard the narcotics crops in those areas where the Popular Liberation Army (Ejercito Popular de Liberación -EPL) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) operate.  They combat the insurgents and displace civilians -even if it means threatening them with mass murder. The main difference is that while the FARC insurgents are parasites who live off of the narcotics traffic by collecting taxes on production and initial stage of the traffic, the paramilitary squads are a parasitory creation of the drug lords, who set paramilitary purposes and goals.




Middlemen generally come from the big cities. They don't normally live in the areas where the coca is produced. It is commonplace for them to pay in advance to cultivate coca and opium poppy, thus replacing legal crops for illegal ones.  They come in different styles. On the one hand, there are the “chichipatos”,small and intermediate buyers who dip into the large intermediaries' premium or corner the local market when prices are low.  On the other hand, there are the big intermediaries who handle larger amounts of money. They are the main buyers of coca paste as well as the suppliers of the chemicals, precursors, and other raw materials needed by the direct producer to process the coca-leaf. 



II.                                 SOCIO-CULTURAL DIMENSIONS



 Narcotics traffickers' social characteristics and their relationships with other groups


A narcotics trafficker is anyone who is linked to that part of the supply chain which generates enormous excess profits. They are a group insofar as they share common interests and common means of satisfying them, even if they do not belong to the same organization. That which identifies them is the aim to accumulate riches and social status by illegal means, the use of violence and bribery, the search for social recognition, their urban-poor origins, and prior delinquency records. Rapid accumulation of wealth allows them to be generous and even spendthrifts. They are, however, merciless with anyone who breaks their rules.  These are the standards they live by.

Narcotics traffickers stand at midpoint between being a group and a social class. They constitute a group within a class, a "class sector" bound together by a common object and through the way they acquire their wealth.  Wealth gives them the right to exercise social and political influence. They are identified as “false friends” of the State, insofar as they do not promote changes in its structure. They are, on the contrary, quite conservative.

Colombia's case could be said to be that of recent modernization led by a "class sector" which feeds on the underground economy. In general, narcotics traffickers tend to recreate traditional Colombian cultural and social values. The values they highlight are those associated with the use of force and violence, which range from machismo (he-man values) to extrajudicial killings and "social cleansing".  All of the standards which this sector of Colombian society reinforces go against the basics of civility and democracy.  

Narcotics traffickers are conservative, reactionary and violent. They weakened the foundations of what is left of Colombia's traditional society.  In general, wide sectors  -working and middle classes- view the narcotics business as a legitimate means of accumulating wealth and moving upwards in the social structure.  The example set by the traffickers has led these sectors to believe that it is impossible -or incredibly difficult- to reach a decent living standard by working, however hard. Some peasants, although they do not sympathize with the narcotics traffickers, find that the only way to survive the agrarian crisis and make a living is by growing coca or opium poppy.

There are two sectors which reject narcotics traffickers: those who find the drug traffic immoral, and those who fear for the Colombian State, alarmed at its buckling under the challenge posed by the narcotics business.  This, of course, depends on the circumstances of the moment.  Nonetheless, caeteris paribus, the only way to explain what occurred in Colombia is by recognizing that narcotics traffickers were widely accepted in different social circles at one time. They were well received by the working class, the middle class,  the ruling class, as well as by political, economic and cultural leaders, who coexisted with this illegal business and benefited from it. 

Narcotics traffickers have strong reasons for wanting to attain legitimacy. They bought their way into the legal economy by purchasing both rural and urban lands; by establishing agricultural, industrial and construction businesses; and by entering the services sector. They moved into the market and established business relations with legal merchants. Furthermore, narcotics traffickers have a tendency to act as benefactors for local or regional charities. They have by such means wormed their way into the mass media, sports, charities, and even the Catholic Church.

A study carried out in the Colombian region of the Valle del Cauca indicates that the acceptance patterns for illegal entrepreneurs correlated with factors such as social background, local leadership characteristics, the presence or absence of armed insurgent groups, the forms by which the State imposes repressive measures, the strategies used to accumulate and launder monies, land-ownership patterns, and the strength or weaknesses of local associational organizations[22].

            Field work within the framework of another study spotted certain behavior patterns which, with one or two variations,  can apply to other regions of the country.  In fact, illegal entrepreneurs, though identified as delinquents, are widely accepted -even if not always openly- by the intermediate and upper social circles in their localities. This is partly due to several factors such as the fact that they invest locally, thus creating new jobs; they spend with largess, thus redistributing wealth (at least to their inner circle); and they sponsor housing and conspicuous construction which build which enhance the sense of belonging and pride among the members of the local community. They are seen as "living" proof that audacity and inventiveness are a sure way to success[23].

At any rate, narcotics traffickers have had an extremely negative influence on Colombian common morals. Particularly, on those of the poorer sectors of society, whose greatest dream now is to make it like the capos.  And as it is relatively commonplace to break the law with impunity, more and more people willingly look for a way to make money without having to work for it.  Narcotics traffickers have been aided and abetted by retired army and police personnel.

Narcotics traffickers do not contribute a new set of common morals to Colombian society.  What they do is exacerbate existing morals putting the perverse side of these social standards on the line. They distort common morals by taking them to the limit as in the case of consumerism and of Colombia's loss of institutional legitimacy (as in the case of the generalized State-authority crisis suffered by Colombia in the mid-eighties.) They thus hinder all chances of institutional mediation since they are adverse to institutional loyalty of any kind, and they endorse the fact that anyone can reach power through the use of violence.  This is witnessed by the means used by urban youth to attain respect and recognition.  

The relationship between the groups tied to the narcotics traffic and other social groups is an ambiguous one.  In effect, Colombian society in general has been quite permissive of the drug lords and their standards.  This, of course, cannot be said of the whole of society.  Certain social sectors reject narcotics traffickers completely.

As regards the other links in the narcotics chain, according to observers and fieldwork done, some raspachines are well received when they return to their hometowns after having made money since this newly-acquired wealth is considered a sign of success.  In fact, they serve as role models inciting young people to migrate to the production areas. 

Apart from the direct producers, whose social interaction is carried out peer level, further up the scale are to be found the technicians (chemists or cooks, and lab assistants), who might experience similar processes to those of the raspachines.  This latter group, however, accumulates more earnings and has therefore the possibility of recycling itself in other economic activities outside of the production zones.

One of the most weighty issues in the relationship that is established between narcotics traffickers and other sectors of society is that of violence.  To a great degree, violence has become a daily occurrence, power has become fragmented and private interests have come to prevail over public welfare.


II.2 Links with political organizations


            Some experts maintain that the traffickers have built up fairly patent relationships with old-time politicians, particularly of the Liberal Party, as shown through the process opened against President Ernesto Samper for allegations of drug money in his electoral campaign.[24] Many regional politicians became mere instruments in the hands of narcotics traffickers.[25]

More generally, Colombian leftist groups have been less open to narcotics traffickers. Nevertheless, there are indications of close ties between some insurgent groups and narcotics traffickers, and of demobilized guerrilla members who have joined narcotics-trafficking organizations.  Noteworthy cases are those of leftist militants (including namely the M-19 and the EPL) who ended up in trafficking outfits and somehow aided in the creation of  their political organizations.

Drug traffickers have been instrumental in organizing paramilitary squads and self-defense groups which have applied their mass-murder strategies to anyone suspected of having anything to do with the guerrilla groups. These groups were founded in the 1970s in response to the kidnapping of some traffickers' relatives by the insurgency. Since then, they have become key players and protagonists in land-concentration processes whereby the capos become large landowners.  They have contributed to redefining which of the country's irregular armed forces controls what part of the territory; and, most momentously, to limiting the horizons of Colombia's perspectives for peace.[26]  The conflicting armed groups have been engaged in a territorial war where control over the illicit crops, as a source of war-effort revenues, is a key element.  Fernando Cubides, an expert on the subject, has clearly pointed out that the paramilitary groups, which started out as private actors defending large land-holding interests, are now actors in Colombia's public war.[27]

Colombia's urban violence owes much to drug traffickers.  They fueled new forms of crime such as indiscriminate terrorism and "magnicides"; they instigated the kidnapping of politicians, journalists, and even actors -as well as the relatives of these sectors of society.  They played a key role in organizing "social-cleansing" squads[28]. They built complex networks of hired assassins or sicarios which involved, mainly though not solely, youngsters from Medellín.  These sicarios were used to eliminate all opposition: their competitors, those politicians who refused to be bribed, government officials, and anyone who was thought to owe anything to the narcotics traffickers..[29]

As regards their relationship with insurgent groups,  traffickers and guerrilla groups made strategic alliances at the beginning of the 1980s -particularly with the FARC.  These links however have not been clear-cut or without a certain degree of conflict -among others, the extrajudicial killing of  the members of the Unión Patriótica (UP) party, the political wing formed by the FARC  who had abandoned armed struggle.  The relationship between narcotics traffickers and guerrilla groups led U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Lewis Tambs, to coin the theory of the narcoguerrilla; theory which was readily taken up by the Colombian military[30].


III.                                NARCOTICS POLICY


As mentioned previously, official narcotics policy is the issue which arouses the most controversy -consensus does not really go beyond accepting that it is of the outmost importance.  Numerous experts are highly critical of the government's drug policy. Several of them consider that it has been erratic and inconsistent, and alternatively designed in response to contradicting demands from  traffickers and the U.S. government. Accordingly, official narcotics policies are not only incoherent but their focus, strategies, judicial and political guidelines and measures are constantly being changed.  In 1996, for example, mandatory minimum sentencing for narcotics trafficking was extended.  The following year, the so-called "penal alternative" law reduced sentences for a good number of crimes and created new benefits, such as weekend home leaves.  Other inconsistencies are laws which are enacted but never enforced, as in the case of the law that establishes the  expropriation of assets, a law that has had very little results up to now.

Some experts believe that there are no truly global policies, since government actions have favored repression and interdiction of narcotics production and marketing in answer to U.S. pressure.  Other scholars suggest that global narcotics policies should be both comprehensive, designed for the long term,  interrelated and enforced.  This rules out the tactical, circumstantial, changeable and erratic policies which have been predominant up to now.

The different Colombian administrations have discontinuously tried to apply repressive measures, either selectively or partially, and with disparate emphasis depending on domestic circumstances and external pressure. They have initiated among others, chemical eradication, interdiction of the different stages the narcotics business, increased military involvement in counternarcotics activities -which ideally should correspond to the police force, the extradition of Colombian nationals, escalated criminalization of the drug phenomenon and related activities, and the search to develop international cooperation and a multilateral approach to narcotics. 

One of the experts interviewed presents an innovative analytical element which distinguishes between two set of norms and practices within the global narcotics policy. On the one hand, that policy which addresses drug abuse and which is dealt with through diverse legislative, judicial and law-enforcement measures, namely the National Narcotics Statute (Estatuto Nacional de Estupefacientes -ENE) and through the signature of the 1988 Geneva Convention. On the other hand, there are the policies designed to counter narcotics, or to be more precise, narcotics traffickers, their violence and corruptive incidence.  These policies include a broad range of measures, mainly enacted under state of siege; and they are geared towards facing the challenge posed by illicit drug merchants.

It is also important to highlight the contradictory nature of counternarcotics policies, insofar as what is being stressed -crop eradication through aerial spraying- contrasts with the search for voluntary substitution initiatives, loan commitment and less aggressive measures towards direct producers. 


III. 1. Changes during the 1990s


Virgilio Barco's administration (1986-1990) achieved an important goal in the  war on drugs: Colombia defended the need to develop an integral approach to illicit drugs and managed to convince other countries of the need to share the responsibility for solving the traffic issue. It embraced the view -held at the time by both Europe and the U.S.- that the solution was to foment legal activities (as through the ATPA and the European Union[31]).  Under the Barco Administration, Colombia received international aid to compensate, if only to a small degree, the financial costs of the war on drugs.  Barco's government managed to partially dismantle the first generation of Antioquia's  traffic thanks to repressive policies, extradition to the United States, and a strategy which demanded the surrender of cartel members. This administration refined the gathering (though not necessarily the application) of intelligence information on traffickers operating in Colombia. It was, however, during Virgilio Barco´s presidency that the Colombian State declared the "war on drugs" and that traffickers declared total war with unprecedented nationwide terrorist attacks.

A opposed to Barco's crackdown policies, under President César Gaviria (1990-1994) both the State and civil society were slow to react towards the narcotics-traffic phenomenon.  Eventually, the Gaviria Administration  undertook the development of an assertive, systematic, coherent and well-structured policy to check each and all of the links in the chain. In accordance with the National Counterviolence Strategy (Estrategia Nacional contra la Violencia), the National Narcotics Directorate was put in charge of designing this policy. A participatory process, involving eight regional fora and one large national forum attended by all of the government instances and NGOs concerned, worked towards finding a feasible counternarcotics platform. On May 12, 1995 the National Narcotics Council approved what is known as Colombia's Commitment towards the Worldwide Drug Problem (Compromiso de Colombia frente al Problema Mundial de la Droga), which was adopted as the National Plan to Counter the Production, Traffic and Consumption of Narcotics (Plan Nacional de Lucha contra la Producción, Tráfico y Consumo de Estupefacientes).

Some of the experts that agree in their appreciations of the Barco Administration also consider that what occurred during Ernesto Samper's Administration (1994-1998) was convenient since, although repressive  and eradication policies were strengthened only to be later weakened once again, the basics were maintained. The different administrations have developed divers approaches depending on a series of domestic, hemispheric and international factors. Two key elements marked the decade.  On the one hand, accusations relating to contributions from drug traffickers to Samper's 1994 presidential campaign which prompted Samper to apply harsher measures against narcotics traffickers.  On the other hand, Samper's loss of legitimacy which hardened U.S. policies towards Colombia, as shown by Colombia's twice-over decertification, and by mounting U.S. pressure to toughen repressive counternarcotics measures.

Scholars and experts in the field find it much more difficult to gauge the results of counternarcotics policies. Prohibition is not conducive, but it is an imposed imperative and its effects need to be counterbalanced.  In some cases repressive policies have had positive results.  In spite of inherent contradictions, Barco's war on the cartels was salutary in that it put an end to certain alliances and complicities between narcotics traffickers, the military and paramilitary groups. Nevertheless, counternarcotics measures have mainly been of a reactive nature, and coherent and sustained policies have been sorely lacking.  In any event, new narcotics enterprises are constantly being formed and the narcotics traffic goes on[32].


III.2. The Results


Almost all of the experts interviewed were extremely critical of Colombia´s counternarcotics policy. They fault their erratic and incoherent nature which attempts to respond simultaneously to opposing demands by local narcotics traffickers and the U.S. government. However, some of the experts seem to think that these policies have been successful.  In fact, they find that, had they not been implemented, things would be much worse. At any rate, and in spite of some achievements, the experts tend to disqualify the coherence and reasoning behind narcotics policies.  There are two basic flaws in the way the drug problem is being addressed. Firstly, prohibition does not seem to be the answer.  Secondly, the diagnosis made and incorporated into Colombian policies does not necessarily take into consideration Colombia's national state of affairs.  Criticisms underscore the fact that the Colombian State promotes alcohol consumption. While liquor, which is the substance which causes the most severe health and social hazards in Colombia is sponsored by the  State, other drugs with milder social and sanitary repercussions are outlawed. Furthermore, a one-sided approach is considered ineffective.  The purpose of a counternarcotics policy is defeated if it only attacks the production of narcotics and does not simultaneously incorporate strong measures to curb drug abuse, the sale of precursors and money laundering. Statistics indicate that more and more people worldwide are now consuming drugs notwithstanding the repressive policies that have been applied in countries producing narcotics, and in spite of the enormous costs of this repression. However, one positive upshot of condemning certain drugs might be a slight decrease in the use of those drugs.

There are certain aspects of current counternarcotics policies which have been particularly harmful. Namely, crop eradication and substitution, the phased "surrender program" and the ever-escalating militarization of the war on drugs. Other policies are more debatable, as in the case of the "faceless" justice system, harsher minimum mandatory sentences and extradition of Colombian nationals for sentencing abroad; these have both positive and negative aspects.   Certain policies, on the other hand, are widely applauded., as is the case with money laundering, asset forfeiture, and decriminalization of drug consumption as of a  1994 Constitutional Court ruling.




The vision that guides current drug policies needs to be reassessed in order to develop a coherent and lasting government policy. First and foremost, wider participation and a more democratic process is required in the search for a more precise definition of the basic dimensions of the problem. Attempts should be made to address consumption as a public health issue and not as a criminal problem.  It is furthermore necessary to develop an appropriate perspective regarding  demand and supply in order to put an end to a controversy which seems to stem more from ideological differences than anything else.  Accepting that demand and supply are the two sides of the same coin is more conducive to formulating integral policies than trying to place the blame on either suppliers or consumers.

Increasing the economic aid allocated to direct producers and to the regions where production has taken hold would be a more democratic and propitious policy than confronting supply by applying aggressive measures such as spraying with chemicals.  Notwithstanding the problems which this approach might generate, at both the national and international levels, and on an economic as well as a political scale, the Colombian government should endeavor to represent one of the most needy sectors of its people: the raspachines and the colonos.  Furthermore, although this might be a source of contention, particularly with the U.S. government, no doubt this stance will be backed by other States and international organizations.

As far as drug abuse is concerned, the Colombian government has been slow in augmenting its efforts to come to the aid of consumers. It could, for example, implement measures such as therapeutic prescriptions, public education programs regarding the dangers of intravenous drug use and AIDS contagion, activities that help to keep young people away from drugs, and enforcement of controls over the sale of base/crack, which is an extremely destructive hard drug.    

Although some steps have already been taken, other measures are urgently required, as for example, alternative dispositions involving a graduated scale of punishment.  Currently, the weakest are being penalized the most whereas white-collar criminals, who have attained social, economic and political power and privileges thanks to the narcotics traffic, are being treated with considerable leniency.  These privileged criminals pose the most serious threat to Colombia's institutional stability and democracy.

There seems to be worldwide consensus regarding the fact that the competent authorities in charge of fighting the war on drugs are the police, the judiciary and the social sector of the State, and this is in general the way the Colombian State has viewed the matter.  However, opinions have been voiced and pressure exerted demanding active military participation in counternarcotics activities. The complex interaction between growers and intermediaries and the insurgent groups operating in crop-growing areas -plus the ensuing equation narcotics traffic/guerrilla warfare- is a source of concern to the military establishment.  Certain interest groups in the United States also consider military participation a must. Although the Colombian government has resisted these pressures -up to now it has not considered military intervention in the narcotics war convenient, nowadays this opposition is weakening. The military alternative is gaining ground.

Extradition is undoubtedly the counternarcoticcs policy which arouses the most controversy. It stirred up traffickers who responded with brutal and generalized terrorism at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s. It is also a source of contestation among intellectuals and politicians.  Extradition is said to undermine and substitute Colombian judicial institutions.  It makes the Colombian State into an intermediary between the delinquent and the judiciary of another country, which spells the end of enhancing criminal-intelligence gathering in Colombia.  Other arguments used against extradition are its repercussions in terms of terrorism and the assassination of judges; and for human rights reasons since U.S. justice is not particularly impartial towards Colombians. At any rate, as far as extradition enforcement is concerned -with few exceptions- only minor king pins have been extradited, Colombia's civil strife has been aggravated and its justice weakened.


There are of course important arguments in favor of extradition, as is the case of international cooperation, reduced international pressure and, more precisely, the possibility of linking the threat of extradition to surrender policies. It might therefore be convenient to re-institute the U.S.-Colombian extradition treaty.  However it should not be mandatory nor automatic but as an alternative to those who refuse to submit to the law. It is considered a fundamental instrument used by the international community in its war on drugs.  It is deemed convenient if articulated within the framework of a global policy, and not when pointedly dealing with only one aspect of the whole process.

A number of experts agree with current prohibition and consider that it should be geared towards displacing production to other countries. They support the policies currently being implemented and maintain that they should be compounded by extradition. Traffic exacts a high social toll, and Colombia should therefore apply repressive measures against it.  Colombia cannot put an end to the narcotics traffic, but it can push it elsewhere where enforcement is lax. In the opinion of these experts, this is what has been achieved by current counternarcotics policies -the success of these policies lies in having displaced the problem. Since the only answer is repression, Colombia has to be more repressive than other countries involved in the narcotics business.

An expert that we interviewed makes a very concrete proposal.  He suggests that drug policies should revolve around two axes: 1) The signing of a multilateral treaty whereby all of the countries agree to apply severe repressive measures to counter narcotics marketing, the supply of precursors and raw materials, money laundering, and to prevent the growing and consumption of narcotics. 2) This same treaty should foresee the creation of an international criminal court to mete out equitable sentences in drug cases.

Similarly, some of the experts interviewed maintain that what is required are diverse actions geared towards recovering the idea that the State and society have the  problem under control, and not the other way around.  Undoubtedly, in the past few years, distribution networks have been dismantled and some of the capos have been detained.  The problem with this proactive governmental action is that it is circumstantial. Counternarcotics policies and actions should also address the ability of the illegal narcotics business to recompose itself.

Some of the experts maintain the need to change underlying tenets. They believe it preferable to bypass the dilemma prohibition-legalization by opting for a strategy focused on harm reduction at the judicial, sanitary, social, police and diplomatic levels, both at home and abroad. They recommend a long-term perspective that does not speculate on immediate results, and which promotes  citizen participation; international and national control mechanisms to evaluate developments, achievements and difficulties; and commitment to full cooperation between government officials and nongovernmental actors at a subregional, hemispheric and international level.

Lastly, one of the experts puts forth a more detailed proposal. He sustains that the international community should consider the possibility of limited decriminalization, which is halfway between the two extremes -prohibition and legalization.  The assessment is that the best way to address the narcotics problem is by applying a flexible scale of penalties, sanctions and measures to meet the need for suitable action in respect of the different kinds of activities connected with drugs: production, distribution, and consumption -of both licit and illicit drugs. This implies going beyond the harm reduction perspective.  It means furthermore -as compared to the Dutch model- decriminalizing and controlling the production and distribution of psychotropic substances.

As refers to Colombia, the contention is that a distinction must be made between drug policies and policies to counter the narcotics traffic. Insofar as drug policies are concerned, Colombia has delayed way too long a much needed global drug policy, regarding both licit and illicit drugs. It needs to supersede the ambiguous, anti-technical and undemocratic National Narcotics Statute currently in force. Colombians should develop alternative domestic drug policies comprising considerations such as the legal use of narcotics, respect for traditional uses of  psychotropic substances, and limiting the damage caused by substances such as alcohol.  These policies should be guided by harm-reduction considerations.

Despite the fact that some steps towars this direction have been implemented, it seems clear that to-day a new gradation of penalties is required in order to counter the fact that  the weakest links of the chain are overpenalized and that some of the most powerfulo beneficiaries of the profits of the business have escalated to privileged positions. In its clearest sense, these types of criminals are the most important menace to Colombian institutional stability and democracy.

[1] Researchers at the Instituto de Estudios Políticos y Relaciones Internacionales (IEPRI) of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Political Scientist Mariana Escobar contributed to this paper through her research. This article was elaborated on the basis of interviews with expert government officials and Colombian scholars specialized in the field.  Translated from Spanish by María Mercedes Moreno.

[2] A recent U.S. government report states that in Colombia there are 79,000 hectares under coca cultivation, 6,600 hectares of opium poppy crop, and  5,000 hectares of cannabis cultivation.  "These statistics indicate that the country [Colombia] is now the largest coca cultivating country in the world, followed by Peru with 68,800 hectares, and Bolivia with 45,800."  El Espectador, August 29, 1998, p. 4-A.

[3] Sergio Uribe Ramírez, "Los cultivos ilícitos en Colombia”, in Francisco E. Thoumi (editor), Drogas ilícitas en Colombia. Su impacto económico, político y social, Bogotá, Ariel - PNUD - Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes, 1997, p. 67.

[4] UNDCP, World Drug Report, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 264.

[5] Graciela Uribe, “Caquetá. Contexto y dinámica de las marchas campesinas”, in Coloquio. Revista de la Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes, 5th Year, No. 3, March 1997, p. 10.

[6] Ricardo Rocha García, “Aspectos económicos de las drogas ilegales”, in Thoumi, op. Cit., pp. 137-278.

[7] The criteria used by the government to distinguish small farmers of illicit crops from commercial plantations, is size:  small farmers are those which have less than three hectares.  This taxonomy, which seems arbitrary, responds to the difficulty of determining the social character type of each of the owners of the illicit crop-growing units.  It does however leave wide margin for the owners of commercial plantations to parcel their plantations so as to escape the arm of the law. According to the National Plan for Alternative Development (PLANTE),  60% of the overall illicit-crop growing areas correspond to small peasant units -30,000 families would be directly involved in illicit-crop growing while 270,000 would be participating indirectly- and the remaining 40% corresponds to commercial plantations. (Plante, 1995-1998. Plan de acción. Síntesis preliminar (mimeograph), May 26, 1995, n.p.n.).

[8] According to a UNDCP report, "The eradication of the coca bush was increasingly undertaken during 1994 - 1995  -from 4,900 to 25,400 hectares." Contrasting estimates have been a continual source of friction with the U.S. government. The report further states that, “There is a significant variation in the Colombian and US government estimates on the production capacity of the Colombian cocaine industry.  In 1995, domestic cultivation alone would have been equivalent to 80 tonnes of cocaine according to US sources, whereas the Colombian government estimated that the correct figure was 356 tonnes.” Op. cit., p. 264. “The July report of the National Narcotics Directorate (Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes) states that 1997 eradication goals were widely surpassed (44,123 hectares destroyed) and that for the first semester of 1998, 46,606 hectares have already been eradicated."  If eradication rates were constant through 1997, this would imply a 133% increase, semester to semester, in the first semester of 1998.  The eradication goal for 1998 was 50,000 hectares. El Espectador, loc. Cit.

[9] The UNDCP estimates that "(...) each year, more than 20 millons liters of ethyl ether, acetone, ammonia, sulphuric acid and hydrochloric acid-primary chemicals (...) are discarded  from  jungle laboratories into the nearby streams and tributaries that feed the vast Amazon and Orinoco rivers."  Op.cit., p.149.

[10] Luis Eduardo Parra Rodríguez, “Impacto ambiental de los cultivos ilícitos en Colombia”, in Coloquio. Revista de la Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes, 5th Year, No. 3, March 1997, pp. 75-79. The author has taken part in the research carried out by the Environmental Auditing Office for the Eradication of Ilicit Crops (Auditoría Ambiental para la Erradicación de Cultivos Ilícitos).

[11] Considering that coca growing generates "(...) 30% of the yearly deforestion rate in Colombia" and opium-poppy growing generates "(...) approximately 15%."  (Ibid, p. 75), one would assume that part of this deforestation has been due to official eradication policies, which push growers to clear new lands.

[12] Ibid, p. 90.

1 [13]

[14] References to transactions can be found in Terry Williams, The Cocaine Kids, Reading, Mass, Addison-Wesley, 1989.

[15] Two studies on the enterpreneurial dimensions of the illicit-drug business in Colombia are: Ciro Krauthausen y Luis F. Sarmiento, Cocaína & Co. Un mercado ilegal por dentro, Bogotá, IEPRI/Tercer Mundo Editores, 199; Rainer Dombois, “Dilemas organizacionales de las economías ilegales: aproximaciones sociológicas a propósito de la industria de la cocaína”, in Estudios Políticos, Bogotá, Instituto de Estudios Políticos y Relaciones Internacionales de la Universidad Nacional, # 33, January-April, 1998.

[16] See Rocha op. cit.

[17] UNDCP, Op. cit., p. 265.

[18] Francisco Thoumi, Economía política y narcotráfico, Bogotá, Tercer Mundo Editores, 1994.

[19] Edgar Rodríguez Ospina, Consumo de sustancias psicoactivas. Colombia, 1996, Bogotá, Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes - Fundación Santa Fe de Bogotá, 1997. “The study covered people from ages 12 to 60, living in non-institutional housing in all of the departments of Colombia in 1996... The sample consisted of 150 municipalities located in 30 departments for an overall sample of 18.770 people.” (p. 3).

[20] From one survey to the other, the size of the sample increased to include more municipalities (from 61 to 150), larger segments and more participants.  The total sample for 1992 was 8,975 while in 1996 it rose to 18,770” (p. 94).

[21] Luis Eduardo Parra Rodríguez, op. cit., p. 73.

[22] Alvaro Camacho Guizado, “Empresarios ilegales y región: la gestación de élites locales”, in Renan Silva, editor, Territorios, regiones, sociedades, Cali/Bogotá, Cidse/Cerec,   1994.

[23] Anónimo, “Estructura de una ´narcocracia regional´,  Villa Pujante: un estudio de caso”, in Ricardo Vargas, ed.,  Drogas, poder y región en Colombia,  Bogotá, CINEP, 1955, Volume II.

[24] Several considerations regarding this legal process can be found in Francisco Leal Buitrago, editor, Tras las huellas de la crisis política, Bogotá. Tercer Mundo Editores, Fescol and IEPRI, 1996.

[25] By 1990, a public-opinion poll in Cali revealed that, when asked if Liberal politicians had ties with the narcotics traffickers, 17% of the people interviewed definitely believed they did and 25% thought they possibly did. For the Conservative Party,  28% were conviced they had links to traffickers and 24% thought it possible. Cfr. Fabio Velásquez and  María Teresa Muñoz, “Encuesta de opinión ciudadana”, Cali, Cidse, 1990.

[26] There are several scholarly works regarding paramilitary groups and their links with narcotics traffickers. We particularly point to three studies which analyze the dimensions of this phenomenon. Cfr. Jorge Orlando Melo, “Los paramilitares y su impacto sobre la política”, in Francisco Leal and Leon Zamosc, eds., Al filo del caos, crisis política en la Colombia de los años 80, Bogotá, IEPRI and Tercer Mundo Editores, 1990; Carlos Medina Gallego, Autodefensas, paramilitares y narcotráfico en Colombia, Bogotá, Ediciones Documentos Periodísticos, 1990: Fernando Cubides, “De lo privado y de lo público en la violencia colombiana: los paramilitares”, in Jaime Arocha, Fernando Cubides and Myriam Jimeno, eds., Las violencias: inclusión creciente, Bogotá, CES-UN, 1998.

[27] Cubides, op. cit.

[28] Cfr. Alvaro Camacho Guizado y Alvaro Guzmán Barney, Ciudad y violencia, Bogotá, Ediciones Foro Nacional, 1990.

[29] Cfr. Alonso Salazar, No nacimos pa´semilla, Ed. Cinep, 1994.

[30] Details regarding this theory are to be found in Alvaro Camacho Guizado, Droga y sociedad en Colombia. El poder y el estigma, Cali/Bogotá, Cidse/Cerec., 1988, cap. VII.

[31] Andean Trade Preference Act and Generalized Preference System (Sistema Generalizado de Preferencias)

[32] With regards to this controversy, some U.S. analysts maintain that prohibition provokes artificial price hikes thereby increasing the profit-motive behind the business.  They find that counternarcotics policies are severe enough to push prices up but not tough enough to push the product out of the market. They have also coined the expression "hydra effect" to refer to attempts at eradicating narcotics production (and commerce) which generally lead to the dispersal of both production and commerce thus neutralizing counternarcotics initiatives. Like the mythical sea serpent that Hercules battled, the drug trade is an elusive enemy: each time one head of the hydra is cut off, two more grow in its place.” See Eva Bertram, Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe y Peter Andreas, Drug War Politics: the Price of Denial, Berkeley, The University of California Press, 1996, p.13.