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In the past sixty years, Colombia has gained a negative reputation all over the world, often being associated with illegal drug trade in which a large population of Colombian citizens participate in. Colombia has had a strong influence and has played a large part in the trade of Marijuana, Cocaine and Coca derivatives, Methaqualone, Heroin, and even Opium in the Andean region of South America. While Colombian officials have attempted to repair the country’s image and help reduce the severe numbers that Colombia is associated with in terms of drug trade and the effects it has on South American society, it has been exceedingly difficult to do so because of the sheer power that Colombian drug barons hold.
At one time Colombia was considered to be a relatively small producer of Coca. Even so, the Medellin and Cali cartels had immense control over the Andean region’s cocaine, being in charge of 75 to 80% of the region’s cocaine, which in the 1980s earned between $2 and $4 billion dollars annually (Bagley, 1990). The cartels used the wealth earned from the illegal trade to organize private militaries and purchase weapons, as well as to impede the Colombian justice system by attempting to bribe, scare, and terrorize the political system (Bagley, 1990). The cartels have become so powerful that it has become exceedingly difficult for the Colombian government to fight efficiently against them.
When President Luis Galan was murdered in 1989, his successor Barco declared war on Colombian drug cartels. He announced that the government would renew summary extradition of Colombian traffickers wanted for crimes abroad, thus circumventing Colombia’s court system (Bagley, 1990). He also implemented policies that allowed for the confiscation of major drug dealer’s bank accounts and other assets, allowed the National Police to hold suspects for up to one week, and told the police and military to raid drug traffickers. In addition, Barco announced that he would strengthen efforts protecting judges and other judicial officials, as well as attempted to remove mayors that had close ties to traffickers, though this was quickly rescinded when both major political parties responded with an outcry against the movement (Bagley, 1990).
Drugs of Colombia
Colombia is currently the only country in the world in which the three main plant-based drugs are produced in such high amounts, and as a result has been involved in the illegal production, smuggling, and marketing of these drugs (Thoumi, 2002). It was not until the 1980s in which Colombia came to be known as the largest cocaine producer in the world, the following decade it became the largest coca grower as well (Thoumi, 2002). Presently, Colombia is the world’s leading coca cultivator. In 2007, the amount of coca cultivated in Colombia rose by 6% over the previous year (CIA, 2008). Supplementary to Cocaine are Heroin and Marijuana, which are also produced in increasingly large amounts.
Drug production and sale took off in Colombia beginning the 1960s, when there became an increase in the demand of Marijuana around the world, but especially in Europe and the United States. Initially, Marijuana was grown in Mexico and Jamaica, but when the United States government decided to fight the growing presence of the drug in their country with the use of an herbicide on Mexican Marijuana crops, the crop then began to be grown in Colombia (Thoumi, 2002). Entrepreneurs related to the drug provided the materials to plant and harvest the crop to peasants then collected the drug to be sold to American consumers. With the popularization of the crop, news spread and production grew exponentially, being grown in country-sides all around Colombia (Thoumi, 2002). Most peasants in the areas that produced the crop only did so until they had enough money to maintain their farms on legal crops (Thoumi, 2002). When many Americans began to grow their own Marijuana and the demand lessened in Colombia, the traffickers decided to introduce Methaqualone as well. Colombia fought against drug producers and traffickers with aerial-spraying of a substance that destroyed many Marijuana crops, but this did not deter the producers who merely moved their locations to areas with less state presence and higher levels of violence (Thoumi, 2002).
Cocaine production in Colombia followed the largely-successful trafficking of Marijuana. Cocaine was a much more desirable drug, however, because its weight and volume ratios are much more valuable than Marijuana was and because it could only be grown in specific locations (Thoumi, 2002). In the 1970s, the traffickers began to export Cocaine to the United States, and when they received high profits in return, the business of selling Cocaine became self-sustainable. By 1987, Colombia was producing 11% of the world’s coca crop and the number kept rising until the 1990s when Colombia became the number one supplier of coca in the world (Thoumi, 2002). Paramilitary forces and guerrillas became increasingly involved with coca production when they came to the conclusion that promoting the planting of coca heightened peasant support. The guerrillas became a substitute for the state in these areas and implemented a very strict regime, writing their own laws and regulations, and providing sources of education, police, and justice to help resolve conflicts. In exchange for these services, they charged coca production and export taxes (Thoumi, 2002).
Poppy cultivation was brought to attention in 1986, it has been suggested that traffickers distributed the supplies and promised crop purchases to peasants (Thoumi, 2002). Poppy plants spread quickly and resulted in increased income for peasants, but at the same time caused conflicts over payments, spreading misunderstandings about transactions and attracted outsiders to areas with increased violence (Thoumi, 2002).
The drug trafficking business is composed of various types of people. According to Thoumi, this includes “peasants to cultivate fields, chemists, suppliers, buyers, intermediaries, pilots, lawyers, financial advisors, body guards, front men, and smugglers” (Thoumi, 2002). Even those relating to government and the enforcement of federal laws can be involved, including politicians, the national police, and para-militaries. With such a wide network of individuals helping to support this illegal industry, the business is very difficult to defeat.
The most central individuals to the drug trading business, of course, are those heading the various drug cartels prominent at one or point of another in Colombian drug history. Drug cartels gained a large amount of support previously by sponsoring schools, churches, and other institutions. The cartels also helped to raise the standard of living for an estimated 100,000 poor peasants, 400,000 of their family members and relatives, and impacted Colombia’s economy substantially (Bagley, 1989). The poverty rate in Colombia decreased and the employment rate rose following the popularization of illegal drug trade, impacting rural areas the most (Baviskar, 1996). There are several cartels within the country of Colombia, but by far the two most prominent in history are the Medellin cartel and the Cali cartel.
The Medellin Cartel was created by a diverse group that included; Jose Gonzalo and Rodriguez Gacha, both who originally had roots in Colombia’s emerald trade, the Ochoa brothers who were from a family known for ranching, and their leader Pablo Escobar, who was formerly known as street thief. The group eventually accepted Carlos Lehder, a Marijuana smuggler, into the group. Young Lehder later convinced leaders of the cartel that it was possible to fly cocaine in small airplanes destined towards the United States (Front Line, 2010). The substantial money that the cartel made was invested in “sophisticated labs, better airplanes, and even as island in the Caribbean where the planes could refuel” according to Frontline: Drug Wars. Escobar was known to be incredibly violent in his journey to gain power; this caused a mutual distrust between the Medellin cartel and the Colombian government. In response to threats of extradition of traffickers to the United States, it has been theorized that he was responsible for the murders of government officials, police officers, judges, journalists, and anyone else he believed could implicate him (Frontline, 2010). The cartel was eventually defeated; Gacha was killed by the police, the Ochoa brothers turned themselves in, in exchange for lighter sentencing, and Escobar was killed too by the police (Frontline, 2010).
The main rival of the Medellin cartel was a cartel in the city of Cali. The Cali cartel was led by the Rodriguez Orejuala brothers and Santacruz Londono, who were known to be more subtle that the men of the Medellin cartel (Frontline, 2010). Instead of investing their money in more sophisticated labs like their rival did, they choose to put their money into legitimate businesses (Frontline, 2010). The Cali cartel supplied the Colombian National Police and Drug Enforcement Administration with information about Escobar’s location. While Escobar was on the run, Cali traders took charge of cocaine trade. As a business dominated group, the cartel hired well-known lawyers to study the tactics of the DEA and United States attorneys and also hired engineers to design communication technology that was resistant to bugging (Frontline, 2010). When demand for cocaine dropped in the United States, the cartel began to focus their sale more on Europe and Asia. The Cali cartel was protected intensely by politics, with several theories as to who exactly was involved with the cartel, including suspicion that former Colombian President Samper and other higher-up political leaders accepted funding from the leaders of the Cali Cartel. In the 1990s, many leaders were captured and are currently serving sentences in prison, but the Drug Enforcement Administration has reason to believe that cartel is still being run from the inside (Frontline, 2010).
Colombian Policies and Comparison to US Policies
Colombia is aware of its faults; 350,000 violent deaths related to illegal drug trade and guerilla warfare, 2.9 million international refugees, and hundreds of thousands that have left the country entirely, with the final number growing (Green, 2005). Colombia has worked tirelessly to help reduce the impact of illicit drug trade on the citizens of its country, in doing so they have also worked towards repairing their image. Colombia and the United States have had a relatively good relationship, with Colombia being semi-dependent on the United States. As the United States has been the major source of demand for illegal drugs, it has given Colombia a large amount of money to help combat the country’s drug problem; in 1989, The United States gave Colombia $65 million dollars, unfortunately in the form of generally undesired assets (Bagley, 1989)
In 1985, there were over twenty million regular users of Marijuana around the world. Around the same time, there was an estimated eight to twenty million habitual Cocaine users (Lee, 1985). Many individuals only look at drug issues on a micro level, generally studying the projected numbers within their own country. When studying drug issues one may look to the numbers in the United States, only analyzing other countries as sources of export. However, those same countries are greatly affected by the drug trade their country participates in; it has been estimated that 50,000 Bolivians, 150,000 Peruvians, and 600,000 Colombians are long-time users of coca derivatives (Lee, 1985).
The United States response to the world-wide drug problem has been that once the supply is eliminated, the demand will also suffer the same. All the same, the United States has repeatedly given Colombia financial aid to assist with their illegal drug problem. In the summer of 2000, former American president Bill Clinton signed a large financial package, with $860 million going directly to Colombia (Massey, 2001). At the time, the Colombian military’s image was severely tarnished, so Clinton made it a requirement that the military improve their human rights profile, though his was quickly dropped, and the aid was disbursed (Massey, 2001).
In the 1980s, another combat strategy included a new herbicide developed to destroy coca, opium, and marijuana crops (Lee, 1985). The herbicide was criticized as it was claimed that it killed a variety of legal crops, infested the water supply, killed livestock, and made many individuals in the rural areas in which the herbicide was used quite sick (Massey, 2001). The United States responded in a fact sheet that the herbicide was not harmful to humans, livestock, or at risk of contaminating water supplies, and added that those claiming so were only doing so to protect the cultivation of their illegal crops (Massey, 2001).
Plan Colombia was approved by The United States Congress in 2000, and is considered to be one of the largest efforts by the United States to assist Colombia with its national drug emergency (ONDCP, 2010). The United States has taken credit for what they describe as Colombia going from an “almost failed state on the verge of becoming a narco-state” to “a strong democratic nation with reduced levels of violence” (ONDCP, 2010). Former Colombian President Uribe created a security strategy that put a large emphasis on assuring all citizens of their security by establishing a prominent government presence, applying Rule of Law throughout Colombia, and creating a boundary that disrupts drug trade, violence, and corruption (ONDCP, 2010). Since the implementation of Plan Colombia ten years ago, the Colombian government has made it a priority to make police presence known. According the Office of National Drug Policy Control, “Since 2002, violence indicators have been reduced to their lowest levels in decades; Homicides have decreased by 40%, kidnapping by 83%, terrorist attacks by 76% and attacks against the country’s infrastructure by 60%”
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