The Colombian Connection

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

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Although marijuana is its main product, Colombia is also America's chief cocaine supplier, processing paste from the leaves of the coca plant, grown in the Andes, into the snowy-white chic drug of the 1970s. About 2 million Americans pay $20 billion annually for 66,000 lbs. of the stuff, and Colombia provides about 80% of it. It is the fashionable drug among movie stars, pop singers and jet-setters. As Robert Sabbag wrote in Snow Blind, his hip account of the cocaine trade: "To snort cocaine is to make a statement. It is like flying to Paris for breakfast." Those who have been arrested for possessing it include Rolling Stones Guitarist Keith Richard, New York Rangers Forward Don Murdoch, TV Star Louise Lasser, Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and one of the owners of Manhattan's top discotheque, Studio 54, where a flashing light tableau shows the man in the moon sniffing coke from a spoon.

Why did Colombia, a relatively backward land, become the world's drug provider? One reason is that climate and soil conditions in the Andes are ideal for growing high-quality marijuana. Another is that Guajira is remote and inaccessible, hard to police from Bogota, with a long and irregular Caribbean shoreline that is ideal for smugglers. Still another reason is that after World War II, Colombia was prey to 15 years of civil strife, generally known simply as "La Violencia." That left 200,000 dead and a society habituated to frontier justice and pervasive corruption. There were widespread rumors that government officials winked at or even sponsored the drug traffic. That changed, however, with the election last June of Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala, 62, former ambassador to Washington, as President.

Until then nobody had any idea of just how big Colombia's marijuana crop was. Former Assistant Attorney General Rodolfo Garcia Ordonez doubted reports that 25,000 acres were being used to grow marijuana. To disprove what he considered wild overestimates, he took a three-day helicopter tour of the northern provinces and made a "strict calculation." His final report: the weed was flourishing on not 25,000 but about 250,000 acres in Guajira. Perhaps 50,000 more acres are cultivated in the southern plains. "I was shocked," he said. "No one thought the problem could be of such dimensions." At a maximum yield, such fields have a potential of producing annually 6 billion lbs. of marijuana, each pound worth $600 on American streets.

A Colombian marijuana grower gets only about 1% of what his harvest will eventually be worth, $6 per lb., but that is five or six times as profitable as growing coffee, corn or cotton. Despite the fact that the government has begun cracking down (it has burned more than 2,000 tons of marijuana since autumn), it is not inclined to be too harsh on the farmers. Says José Miguel Garavito, the swashbuckling operations officer of the Attorney General's antidrug unit: "It is hard to blame a farmer who is growing corn and earning a few pesos for switching when he seen his neighbors working no harder to grow marijuana and earning lots of pesos. The traffickers come in, give them the seeds and then collect the crop."

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