The Colombian Connection

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

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It comes in many varieties. The "catadores, "or crop tasters, report that although Santa Marta Gold is still the most famous of the Colombian line, the Arhuaco Indians in the higher altitudes are growing an even more potent variety of pot: Mona (blond) plants so pale that they look bleached. The Cielo Azul heights produce a pale plant known as Blue Sky Blond, developed as a hybrid two years ago with seeds from Thailand. Even the arid and low-lying fields of the Guajira peninsula, which are irrigated and farmed with tractors, grow a good green grass. The broiling sun forces the plants up to 15 ft. within six months and infuses them with an abundance of powerful resin. The emerging new drug-cultivation area is the Llanos plains, on the edge of the Amazon jungle, where pruning has improved the original coarse green cannabis.

Samples of all these varieties can be found in Bogota's dope marketplace, just behind the Bogota Hilton. One of the traders, known only as Ricardo, touts a red hashish from the Llanos area. He waves a smoldering lump of it on the tip of a needle in front of his clients. As the smoke does its magic, he smiles and exhorts the potential buyers, "Just taste the quality."

Cocaine, which reaches the U.S. through the Colombian network, often does not originate in Colombia. Most coca shrubs grow in neighboring Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, where the Indians of the Andes have chewed the leaves for more than 2,500 years. According to legend, the founder of the Inca dynasty, Manco Capac, brought coca to earth from his father, the sun. The Indians used it to dull their hunger, cold and weariness. (When Georgia Pharmacist John Styth Pemberton invented Coca-Cola, he included small amounts of cocaine to "cure your headache" and "relieve fatigue," but the drug was eliminated from the syrup shortly after 1900.) Colombia's role in the coke trade is middleman and processor. At kitchen labs dotted around the country, coca leaves brought in from all over the Andes are distilled into a paste and then converted into a base (150 lbs. of leaves make 1 lb. of base, worth more than $2,000). In a final stage, this base is crystallized into 1 lb. of pure cocaine, for which a smuggler will pay $7,000.

On a slightly higher level of technology, Colombia drug traffickers have started to manufacture and smuggle other drugs, most notably a counterfeit line of Quaaludes, a prescription brand of the sedative methaqualone. At least five presses for making the white pills have been smuggled into Colombia recently. For 100 apiece, they churn out tablets of methaqualone that are being popped at 35 times that price in the U.S. Last month, during a raid on a marijuana warehouse on the Guajira peninsula, soldiers found a million fake Quaaludes.

The fortune brought in by drugs has created an underground economy that fuels Colombia's 20% inflation. Prices of land and homes in coastal areas like Santa Marta have rocketed. Rolls-Royces and $30,000 beds with built-in stereos are among the signs of the drug traders' conspicuous consumption. Also being purchased by traffickers: Colombia's judges, customs agents and police. The jail in the capital of the Guajira is so corrupted that the army has quit sending captured smugglers there. They routinely escape.

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