CALI, COLOMBIA—Hiking up the hilly streets of this compact Colombian city can remind a foreign visitor of a semi-tropical San Francisco. The city is nestled around a jagged and verdant coastal chain of the Andes mountain range, but its climate is muggy despite a legendary late afternoon breeze that often cools the sticky air. Only a few miles outside of the steep slopes of this bustling city of almost three million you can find acre after acre of sugarcane. Locals proudly boast that their soil produces the world’s highest yield of this tropical crop.On a recent visit to Cali I stumbled upon Parque San Antonio, where I witnessed a motley assortment of Caleños—old and young, a rainbow of races, and even a mix of rich and poor—conducting an impromptu and effortlessly (at least to this gringo eye) sensual dance clinic in a cinder amphitheater, with dozens of leisurely park-goers looking on. The scene revealed the centrality of dance to Colombian social life, as well as Cali’s unique demographics: half of all citizens are black, the highest portion of any Latin American city. The dancers moved from one style to another with remarkable ease according to the particular song blaring from the low-tech boom-box. Within Latin America, Colombians are known for their dance skills. Colombians themselves will tell you that the best dancers come from Cali, South America’s undisputed salsa hub. The city’s nightlife is legendary.As an outsider, one has to be rather surefooted to dance in step with the seemingly discordant tunes echoing throughout Colombia down through the years. For example, the country has one of the most legalistic and institutionalized governments in Latin America, but it has also been racked with political polarization and violence since its founding in the 1830s. Colombians live contentedly, never missing a moment to break out into laughter, song, or dance; in fact, a recent poll listed Colombians as the happiest people on earth—double the global average. Yet these warm-hearted citizens also adhere to a Mafioso culture in which both political and domestic disputes are all too frequently resolved through violence.There is perhaps no better place to experience Colombia’s many dimensions than Cali. A cursory visit reveals a dynamic city. Construction cranes dot the skyline, a sign of sustained economic expansion over the past decade. The city’s new, dedicated lane bus system (effectively light rail) is modeled on a highly successful one in Bogotá and is putting a serious dent in its notorious traffic snarls. But despite significant gains in the quality of life, Cali remains trapped by its deeply entrenched culture of violence and drug trafficking.Unfortunately, although Colombia has made massive security gains in recent years, Cali’s gangland drug operations—and their related social costs—might foreshadow the “new normal” for the country as a whole. This is especially true now that peace talks with the Marxist FARC guerrillas in Havana are making progress toward ending the country’s internal war, which started in the early 1960s.The heyday of the Cali Cartel, the 1980s and 1990s, was a time of great hysteria in the United States over the scourge of illegal drugs, especially crack and cocaine. In Colombia, Medellín kingpin Pablo Escobar launched a veritable war against the Colombian state and political class. In the early 1990s, for example, narcotics-funded assassins killed five presidential candidates and 250 judges. Escobar’s assault on Colombian society likely led to his downfall, as Bogotá simply could no longer tolerate the humiliation that his brazen violence had created. Escobar met his end when he was shot on a Medellín rooftop while evading arrest. At the time, U.S. and Colombian anti-drug officials celebrated Escobar’s “decapitation” as proof positive that their vaunted “kingpin strategy” was on its way to eradicating cocaine trafficking in Colombia.What these authorities did not fully anticipate, however, was how quickly other criminal organizations would fill the vacuum created after the Medellín Cartel’s destruction. Most prominent among them was the Cali Cartel, run by four billionaires who managed a worldwide cocaine monopoly, controlling everything from production to sales in the suburbs and cities in the United States. As scholar William Rempel has chronicled, at its apex these kingpins shipped paper currency from cocaine sales across the globe. Aging jets such as modified 727s were purchased for a few hundred thousand dollars, used to transport these massive amounts of cash, and then left to rust on clandestine runways in remote sections of this geographically remote country.Before Escobar’s death, the Cali capos (kingpins) paid more than $1 million to a team of British mercenaries to murder their Medellín counterpart. The Cali Cartel also utilized a skilled team of sicarios (assassins) to enforce discipline and compliance within its diffuse organization. American drug enforcement agents called the cartel’s intelligence unit the “Cali KGB.”While Escobar’s drug empire was renowned for its violence and gaudy displays of narco wealth, the drug traffickers of Cali considered themselves both subdued and sophisticated. As one Cali city official told me, “They have highly educated people, degrees from American schools. They followed the Italian mafia concept of threatening and bribing, rather than killing—unless they had to.” By contrast, this same official cited Escobar’s menacing “Plan Pistola” in which he promised $1 million for each police officer killed—the very sort of act that made Medellín the undisputed murder capital of the world during this tumultuous era in Colombian history. The Cali operators, on the other hand, spent millions of dollars building community projects, including local police stations and a hospital and library. This being Colombia, they even owned the city’s professional soccer team.Easily the most deleterious element of the Cali cartels’ prominence was its use of bribery to buy the soul of the Colombian government. Its payment network included police offices, senators, and even members of the elite counternarcotics force. A revolving door of former politicians constituted the Cartel’s “lobbying wing,” arranging meetings with the kingpins and government officials—all in an effort to spread the word that “the gentlemen of Cali would be generous to friends.” Cash, cars, women, luxury vacations, and, of course, cocaine were some of the incentives. As one Colombian told me in the mid-1990s, the Cali Cartel is the cocaine version of the American sugar lobby: low profile but incredibly effective.During the late 1990s, the Cali Cartel suffered the same fate as its Medellín competitor. Rather than falling to a hail of police bullets, as did Escobar, the Cali members were arrested or turned themselves in. It appeared that the kingpin strategy had scored another huge win. The problem, though, was that the successful “decapitations” of Medellín and Cali simply atomized cocaine production and trafficking into smaller entities that were much harder to track and interdict.As the Marxist FARC and ELN guerrilla organizations operated with effective impunity in the hinterlands during these years, drug traffickers and large landowners began to fund paramilitary forces to fend off the insurgents’ threats and attacks. The Colombian state and military were willing to turn a blind eye or lend a helping hand given that the nascent “paramilitaries” appeared to be the enemies of their enemies, namely the revolutionary guerrillas. These new paramilitary groups, now united under the umbrella group called the “United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia” (AUC), targeted rural and urban populations they believed to be complicit with the Marxist guerrillas. The result of this scorched earth strategy was an untold number of civilian massacres and the forced internal displacement of mostly poor and vulnerable Colombians.In 2005, more than 30,000 paramilitary fighters (close to the entire force) demobilized as part of a government program. Perhaps a quarter of these men and women eventually returned to illicit behavior, joining nascent criminal bands Colombians refer to as Bacrim. Unlike the paramilitaries, the Bacrim do not usually wear military fatigues or espouse a political ideology. These shadowy groups often specialize in one element of trafficking and offer their services to the highest bidder—even to their erstwhile sworn enemies, the Marxist guerrillas. At the beginning of the paramilitary demobilization, there were roughly thirty Bacrim active across the country. Today perhaps three remain and represent formidable threats to societal security in Colombia’s longstanding drug trade. Cali’s proximity to the Pacific coast is another complicating factor. This neglected region has acute social problems and is now the criminal hub for the southwest area of the country. Cali is ground zero in this ever shifting dynamic.At the time of my Cali visit, the city’s cash-strapped ombudsman, Andrés Santamaría, said that Colombians had turned a blind eye to the depth of the paramilitary reach into society—not just to its civilian violence but also to drug trafficking, illegal land seizures, and corruption of the political system. In recent years more than a hundred national legislators were removed from office for informal or formal links to these paramilitary networks. As Santamaría lamented to me, what came known as the “para política” (paramilitary politics) scandal was at its core was less a national phenomenon but instead a fusion of landowners, drug traffickers, hit-men, and corrupt provincial clans eager to gain regional power and national office.After the Cali Cartel imploded, the Norte del Valle cartel (NDVC) emerged as the most powerful drug organization of its era, based mostly in the northern part of the Valle del Cauca department that includes Cali and the Pacific port of Buenaventura, which are popular among drug traffickers. As InSight Crime analysts have reported, NVDC built a number of key trafficking routes still in use today; many use high-speed boats and fishing vessels to smuggle cocaine from Colombia’s Pacific coast to Mexico. In 2005, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reckoned that NDVC had exported more than 500 tons of cocaine—valued at $10 billion—through this route over a decade. At its highest point, the cartel was responsible for roughly 60 percent of the cocaine entering the United States. So much for the kingpin strategy.Like the Cali Cartel, the NDVC established a broad network of bribery and influence that touched police forces, intelligence agencies, and prosecutors. In addition to establishing military wings, the NDVC also linked up with the AUC paramilitaries in order to ensure protection of its cocaine laboratories and distribution routes. By 2007, however, internal divisions and fighting led it to splinter, converting into a network of separate drug-trafficking forces. This is what gave rise to the pernicious Bacrim elements, including a newly independent Rastrojos, which became the most powerful drug entity in the post-NDVC era.In ensuing years, the Rastrojos clashed with young drug-traffickers over a share of the cocaine trade, using Cali as the battleground of this internecine feud. Cali had in fact achieved the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of Colombia, though many of these deaths were narco gangs killing each other. The Rastrojos were dealt a sudden blow in May 2012 when their most powerful leader, Javier Antonio Calle Serna, turned himself in to American officials. Almost overnight, the group effectively ceased to exist, replaced by a string of local drug elements.Cali’s current predicament must be understood within the context of changing cocaine trafficking dynamics across Colombia and the region. During the Escobar years, Colombian traffickers controlled the entire route, from production in clandestine jungle laboratories to sale to American consumers. Today, however, Mexican cartels have taken over a considerable share of the “value added” component, which reduces the revenues going to the Colombian cartels, Bacrim, and guerrilla organizations, all knee-deep in the illicit trade. In some instances, Colombian cartels will sell the cocaine to Mexican buyers before the product has even left the country.Not surprisingly, this shift in the production chain has resulted in greater violence in Mexico and along the preferred transit route through Central America. Depending on one’s perspective, the blowback incurred in Central America is reason either to intensify or to diminish the drug war, both in Colombia and Central America. These sorts of wrenching questions lie at the heart of the war on drugs and require more than facile, morally soothing answers.Twenty years ago, less than a fifth of the Andean coca crop was grown in Colombia, with the larger share occurring in Peru and Bolivia. Yet Colombians dominated the cocaine production done in clandestine labs using mostly coca or semi-processed coca paste from Peruvian and Bolivian fields. Ten years later, after aggressive eradication and interdiction of the Bolivian and Peruvian coca, the overwhelming majority of the crop switched to Colombia.Now, after more than a decade of aggressive, U.S.-backed eradication of coca fields, cultivation has plummeted in Colombia. And, once again, we have seen a surge in coca growing back in Bolivia and Peru, although this time it has been combined with a concomitant spike in cocaine production in the two countries. This “Whac-A-Mole” effect is an inescapable reality of the supply side of the drug war in the Andes. A major problem with claiming “victory” through improved seizure and eradication statistics is that a share of the violence stemming from Colombia’s cocaine trade has simply been exported to Mexico and Central America. It is not surprising that drug traffickers are now seeking to get cocaine out of Colombia as quickly as possible. And increased maritime interdiction operations in the Caribbean and the Pacific have made overland transit across Central America preferable. This route now carries an estimated 85 percent of all U.S.-bound cocaine, wreaking havoc on the region’s generally vulnerable political and social fabric.It is worth remembering that the farmers growing the coca in Colombia receive an estimated 0.05 percent of the revenue from the entire production chain. Some observers still hold the notion that the bucolic lives of Colombia’s farmers are being ruined by heartless anti-drug efforts, particularly the destruction of crops. The truth is that many of these farmers migrate to the coca regions after being forced off their land. By planting the crop, they are quickly subjected to a cycle of violence and intimidation by the country’s guerrillas and the new Bacrim scourge. All told, coca and cocaine are horrible for Colombia in ways that are not fully understood from a distance.Another salient phenomenon has been the unexpected drop in America’s appetite for cocaine—down 40 percent in the past six years. Even after the drop, upwards of 95 percent of the cocaine that Americans consume is produced in Colombia. Colombian authorities proudly report record drug seizures: In 2012 they captured roughly 240 tons of cocaine, believed to be nearly 70 percent of the total amount produced in the country. Coca cultivation topped out at 100,000 acres in 2007 and dropped to 64,000 in recent years. Critics contend, however, that greater cultivation productivity means that fewer acres need to be planted to get the same yield. U.S. officials cite evidence of decreasing purity and rising retail prices as reflecting a reduction in the supply of cocaine due to these efforts. The rub, though, is that this development might also be due to the fact that the traffickers recognized the lower demand in the United States and simply cut production—that is, the tail is wagging the dog.Complicating matters, ever entrepreneurial, traffickers have increased both the coca cultivation and cocaine production in Peru and Bolivia, where interdiction efforts are not nearly as aggressive. Most of this cocaine, however, is shipped to the increasingly lucrative and growing neighboring markets of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. One seldom discussed question is whether American politicians and policymakers actually care about the boom in cocaine produced in Bolivia and Peru, since almost none of it (chemical tests confirm that it’s 1–2 percent) makes its way to the United States.Brazil’s government, in particular, remains reluctant to fully acknowledge the country’s growing role as a consumer and transit point onward to Western Europe and West Africa. Brazil might be the world’s largest market for crack and second largest for powder cocaine. And Colombian traffickers are also finding that they can replace the U.S. market by increasing sales within their own, increasingly richer country: Roughly one million Colombians consume the drug, an increase of 15 percent in recent years. It’s paradoxically a reflection of the country’s vibrant economy and the increase in foreign investment enticed by the end of the war.Cali’s current Mayor, Rodrigo Guerrero Velasco, has a keen understanding of these shifting patterns. A Harvard-trained epidemiologist, Guerrero was the dean of health science and later president of one of Colombia’s most prestigious universities. Like HIV, he contends, drug trafficking attacks a society’s “immune system,” its government institutions: judicial, police, political. During his first stint as Mayor during the 1990s, the Cali Cartel reigned supreme, and Guerrero’s police chief and bodyguard were on the narcos’ take. More recently, at least a few high-level officials were again linked to drug trafficking.One morbid indication of Cali’s plight is the frequency with which public officials mention the murder rate. Guerrero told me that Cali’s was 65 per 100,000, although some sources put it at 85. (Chicago’s rate was15 in 2010.) During its horrible Escobar period in the 1990s, Medellín was more than 400. Guerrero believes that “cultural violence” is to blame for the wanton killings. “We are embedded in a society that solves conflict violently from birth.” And he believes that inequality, not poverty, is what inflames this cultural predilection toward violence: “Haiti is poorer than Colombia. But they are all poor. Colombia has strong inequalities.”One does not have to spend much time in Cali to get a vivid sense of the inequalities Guerrero laments. A sign of Colombia’s booming economy is that small apartments in wealthy neighborhoods readily go for $500,000, which some believe only the narco-lords are able to afford. These ultra-luxury abodes are perched in the same hills right next to some of the city’s roughest slums, where shoddy, tin roof and brick wall shacks provide only the most precarious shelter for its residents. Making matters worse, Santamaría’s office estimates that 25 families arrive in Cali each day, often fleeing drug violence along the nearby, Bacrim-plagued Pacific Coast. And these migrants tend to be poor and marginalized Afro-Colombians, most of them young and female, their fathers having been killed in internecine violence.A couple of years ago, Mayor Guerrero noticed new data that indicated that two-thirds of the city’s murders were taking place on weekends. “It’s hard to understand why drug traffickers would wait for the weekend.” His hypothesis was that much of either the drug gang violence or domestic violence was fueled by alcohol consumption (something Colombians are renowned for) at nightclubs. So he implemented a pilot project (published in the Journal of American Medicine, no less) that banned guns and the bars’ sale of alcohol after midnight, which, he claims, led to a 35 percent drop in the murder rates in these targeted areas. This policy approach was also implemented in Bogotá last year.Part of the brilliance here is that Guerrero questioned the assumption that the violence was entirely narcos killing narcos for gang reasons rather them doing it simply because they were drunk and fell into a petty argument outside a disco. Not one to rest on his laurels, Guerrero unsuccessfully attempted to implement a permanent, citywide ban on guns in civilian hands along the lines of what Bogotá has successfully done. Ironically, though, the local military battalion that runs the gun-licensing program in the city would have lost a lucrative revenue source and the power of deciding who gets guns. Guerrero observed that the “military is our NRA—they are tight with the gun industry here and need funds.”Despite these bureaucratic obstacles and the entrenched drug violence, Guerrero has not shied from making citizen security the hallmark of his administration. He has assembled a coterie of well educated and less politicized advisers, municipal secretaries, and technocrats. Influenced by the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention, Guerrero pushed the nighttime illumination of darkened parks where illicit activity thrived. New, artificial-turf soccer fields can be seen across the city, including the rough barrios. For Guerrero, this is a success: “Years ago no one trusted the police. Today that is not the case.”Given that the drug war has failed to eliminate the production and trafficking of narcotics despite multibillion-dollar expenditures, several former and current Latin American Presidents have expressed their desire to explore new approaches to counter-narcotics. Colombia’s current leader, Juan Manuel Santos, has been one of the most outspoken on the topic. In early February he said, “It’s a war that unfortunately we have not won, even though Colombia has been the country that has made the greatest sacrifices in this campaign, has risked the most blood.” While there is an increasingly vocal chorus echoing Santos’ frustrations, so far there are few specifics about what a “kinder, gentler” drug war might look like. Uruguay has made headlines for its recent legislation that legalized marijuana in the tiny, socially progressive Southern Cone nation. And two American states have joined Uruguay’s experiment in the legalization of pot. But would we do the same with cocaine? If not, then can some sort of “kinder, gentler” war be waged against Andean cocaine? One Colombian official told me, “We don’t want to be Uruguay. For decades, we’ve seen the damage that the drug trade does.”Despite his rhetoric, Santos, a hawkish former Defense Minister, has not eased off on Colombia’s aggressive antidrug operations, including the controversial aerial spraying of coca. One Colombian official told me, half-jokingly, that his dovish talk on drugs is more political than practical, as he hopes to secure the UN Secretary General slot after he leaves office.Back in the days of Medellín’s Escobar, the Cali Cartel, and Marxist narco-guerrillas, Colombia’s cocaine dynamics held a certain fascination for many American observers. Today, the opaque Bacrim have replaced these more colorful antagonists, but the ills that the cocaine trade generates remain. According to a U.S. Embassy official in Bogotá, “A Congressman from Iowa could wrap his mind around Escobar and the FARC, but forget about it for the Bacrim.”Negotiations are being held between FARC and the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba, to forge an agreement to end the Marxist guerrilla-cum-terrorist group’s decades-long war. That FARC’s once-limitless war chest of cocaine revenues has been drastically reduced by relentless Colombian anti-drug operations is only one of the reasons that the group is apparently ready to disarm. But this counts as a big success, even if it alone does not justify prolonging the destructive stalemate of the drug war.Most Colombians are eager for a peace deal but far fewer expect the talks to result in a lasting accord. A looming fear is that thousands of these “demobilized” will find their ways to cities like Cali and simply “reenlist” into the largely apolitical Bacrim. As one constitutional lawyer in Bogotá told me, “We can have a formal peace with the guerrillas, but we’ll still have drug wars and victims of the drug wars.” For an American diplomat, this new but painful reality should still be considered a victory. “Our strategy was always to turn Colombia from a political struggle to a law enforcement issue. It’s not the Garden of Eden, but it’s still a huge step forward.” Time will tell and, for better or worse, Cali will likely be on the front lines of these shifting dynamics in a cocaine trade that will be with us for a while to come.
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Published on: April 17, 2014
A Letter from CaliColombia’s Protean Drug War
Past victories against Colombia’s narco-businesses have shifted trafficking patterns within and across borders. Now resurgent violence and shadowy new drug lords have returned to threaten the country’s newfound prosperity.