The Colombian Connection

How a billion-dollar network smuggles pot and coke into the U.S.

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Like a bird searching for scraps of food, the little Cessna circled lazily over the green hillsides. Below, everything looked peaceful. The one thatched hut nestled in a clearing appeared deserted. This was remote Guajira province in northern Colombia, which stretches from the Caribbean up into the rugged hills and ravines of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Suddenly three shots rang out, reported TIME Correspondent Donald Neff. His Cessna twisted into a steep climb and fled to safety.

The farmers of Guajira do not like visits from inquisitive reporters or other strangers. They have good reason. For the grassy harvest ripening in the sun is marijuana, a luxurious marijuana of heady strength known as Santa Marta Gold. Most of it is destined for the U.S., where the 42 million Americans who have tried pot have made smoking it the most widely accepted illegal indulgence since drinking during Prohibition. They now consume about 130,000 lbs. per day, quadruple the 1974 consumption, and they spend $25 billion per year on their pleasure. Mexico provided most of the best marijuana until two years ago, when the government there began cracking down on drug smugglers and spraying marijuana fields with the herbicide paraquat. Colombia moved rapidly to fill the gap. It now provides roughly two-thirds of all the pot smoked in the U.S. "Colombia is the largest supplier of marijuana in the world," says Peter Bensinger, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "It's a trafficker's paradise."

This is the Colombian Connection, a network of farmers, smugglers, brokers and fixers that extends more than 5,000 miles from Bogota to the great markets of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. It owns an armada of ships and planes, and it has recruited an army of bush pilots, seamen, electronics experts, roustabouts and cutthroats. Though the Mafia is starting to move in on this stream of gold, the connection is still operated mainly by Colombians (some 70,000 families are believed to be involved), most of them novices or small-time entrepreneurs. It is by far the largest business in Colombia, providing more revenue than coffee; it is also, astonishingly enough, the largest retail business in Florida. Those who enjoy smoking the weed may regard the traffic as essentially harmless, but wherever the Colombian Connection extends, it spreads violence and corruption.

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