The Colombian Drug Trade: A Greater Threat Than Believed
On September 7, 2000, the Colombian National Police (CNP) seized a partially constructed, steel-hulled submarine from a warehouse outside Bogotá, Colombia, which, as the police suspected, could have been used to transport up to 10 metric tons, worth $2 million, of illicit drugs from Colombia to remote off-load sites in Latin America and the Caribbean—had it been completed.1 Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security says the submarine would have been used to evade radar and naval patrol ships, taking drugs out to sea where they could be transferred to high-speed motorboats for the journey to Central America and then on to the United States.2 While this “narco-sub” was confiscated before being utilized, its conceptualization and partial creation demonstrate the infinite resources and ingenuity of modern drug traffickers. Colombian traffickers especially generate billions of dollars in revenues each year, which have been increasingly used to purchase the best talent and technology available on the world market. Despite the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) belief that possible drug submarines pose only a limited threat to interdiction forces, they cannot deny that Colombian drug traffickers are devising clever strategies to evade eradication efforts and maintain their billion dollar illicit drug industry.
Colombia has always been, and remains, the world’s number one producer of finished cocaine HCI; however, the country has also recently begun to dominate the production of the world’s cocaine base. As recent as 1995, Colombia had only produced about 25 percent of the world’s cocaine base and was dependent on Peruvian and Bolivian sources for two-thirds of the product, which is needed to make finished HCI. Yet, today, Colombian production of cocaine base has increased to about 74 percent of the world’s supply, according to the 2002 DEA Drug Intelligence Report. Not only is the country able to independently produce cocaine HCI from start to finish, but scientific fieldwork carried out by the DEA has also found that traffickers in Colombia are growing varieties of coca with a higher cocaine alkaloid yield than previously identified, and that their cocaine base laboratory operations are more efficient than previously believed.3 The DEA has also observed dramatic changes in the “geopolitics” of coca cultivation and cocaine production. These changing dynamics highlight the adaptability of Colombian cocaine trafficking organizations to changing geographic conditions, market demand, and drug enforcement policies, as they continue to dominate the international cocaine trade.
From the early 1980s through the mid 1990s, first the Mendellin Cartel and then the Cali Cartel, dominated all aspects of the international cocaine trade, from wholesale production to transportation, to wholesale distribution in the United States and Europe. Beginning in the mid 1990s, however, dramatic law enforcement successes against both cartels caused their dissolution and the rise of experienced drug traffickers who had been in the shadows of the era’s renowned drug lords. As a result, the cocaine trade has been decentralize and fragmented as Colombian traffickers now specialize in only one aspect of the cocaine industry, diffusing trafficking roles to cartels in other regions, such as Mexico and the Caribbean. In spite of this fragmentation, Colombian cocaine trafficking organizations have remained the dominant players in the international cocaine trade, and continue to control the supply of cocaine at its source; have a firm grip on Caribbean smuggling routes; and dominate the wholesale cocaine markets in the eastern United States and in Europe.4
This report examines drug trafficking in Colombia, the evolution of cocaine and its prevalence in the United States, and the Colombian Government’s counter-drug strategies, programs, and organizations, and offers a future outlook.