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The big money in the Colombian drug operations goes not to those who grow narcotics or process them, but to those who get them to the American consumer. One way to get the drugs out is to fly them from one of the hundreds of clandestine airstrips that have been bulldozed in Guajira peninsula. The Colombian army's map of the region is speckled with 150 pinpoints, but an officer admits, "There are so many illegal airstrips we don't really count them."
"The Americans stupidly land here, and then they naively make up the same lies to explain their presence," according to General José Maria Villarreal Abarca, commander in the northern provinces. "They say they got lost." Shortly after he spoke, one of his deputies came in and reported that three Americans had been caught making an emergency landing. The general went to investigate.
"Gosh," said Donald Davis, 36, a former employee of the Michigan state police who was co-piloting the lumbering old DC-6. "I don't know what all the activity is about. We were headed for Costa Rica from Florida when our navigation went out. We were down to our last drop of fuel when we landed."
In Pilot Riddel Marvin's pocket, however, the authorities found evidence indicating another objective: a smudged note giving the coordinates of a large clandestine airstrip in the area. The army, tipped off by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, had been waiting for the three Americans. According to intelligence, they were supposed to pick up six tons of grass and another American, who had been arrested last November after illegally flying into the country. The three are now being held in Colombia on illegal-entry charges, and DEA officials say they may be prosecuted for conspiracy to smuggle when allowed to return to the U.S.
Getting caught is not the only risk facing drug pilots. The peninsula is littered with planes that were overloaded with tons of marijuana and crashed while trying to take off. General Villarreal says he has found, within four months, eleven downed planes and the bodies of ten smugglers. Local fishermen tell tales of planes crashing into the sea and their crews being devoured by sharks.
Finding a safe landing field in the U.S. on the return run is not easy either, but more and more crude landing strips have appeared in rural areas in the South. One pair of hapless smugglers this month made it all the way into the U.S. only to land in a Florida pasture being used by local politicians for a turkey shoot. The pilot was promptly arrested. But for those who make it in safely, and most do, the payoff is high. A pilot can pocket $50,000 for one trip. Ten tons of marijuana, if landed safely, immediately becomes worth $6 million wholesale, making the trip profitable even if the old plane must be abandoned on its makeshift runway in the woods.