CALI, Colombia—In the minds of many Americans this picturesque Andean nation is best known for three things:
- A famous leftist guerrilla movement fueled by profits from cocaine, and
- Notorious crime rings like the Medellín and Cali cartels, whose leaders rode their insane coke revenues to become the biggest, baddest, most exotic-wild-animal-owning mafiosos in the hemisphere.
Today the land that begat the Magical Realism of Gabriel García Márquez and coffee grower Juan Valdez’s trusty mule is still the largest producer of the world’s most in-demand drug. But many of the Marxist fighters who trafficked in el caballo blanco (the white horse) to fund their side in modern history’s longest-running civil war are now officially demobilized. They’ve traded in their balaclavas and AK47s for a seat at the political roundtable in Bogotá, part of a peace accord reached last year with the government.
Meanwhile the country’s largest traditional cartel, the so-called Gulf Clan—which arose from the ashes of the Pablo Escobar era—has been weakened by a sustained government offensive and factional infighting. Many of the top-ranking Clan members were arrested or killed over the last two years, leading the remaining leadership to sue for peace—a move that an old-school, fall-on-your-sword boss like Escobar surely would have abhorred.
The Escobarian code decreed that if you weren’t ready to go out in a blaze of coked-up glory, if you feared dying on the ramparts—or, in Pablo’s case, the rooftops—while standing off the Federales, then the crime game was not for you. His descendants are, apparently, possessed of lesser cojones. And the Clan’s instability, in conjunction with the announced end of the 50-year-old civil war, has led to another development that would have been unthinkable to “Coke King” Escobar: Mexicans moving in on the empire.
“We may be witnessing the occurrence of a singularity in narco-geopolitical events,” Robert Bunker, an expert on Latin America at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.
Bunker defines this singularity as “the final shift in power from the cocaine producers in Colombia to the cocaine traffickers in Mexico.” Historically, “the Colombian cartels were the undisputed lords of cocaine while the Mexican cartels were, for the most part, their minor partners... In a sense, what is happening now is the reverse ‘criminal colonization’ of Colombia by the Mexican cartels,” Bunker said.
“Pablo Escobar and his dead capo buddies have to be doing backflips in their graves over the indignity of this shift in narco power.”
This development comes at the same time the Trump administration is putting firm pressure on Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to curb the recent spike in national cocaine output. POTUS has gone so far as to warn of severe cuts in U.S. aid if yields don’t go down—thus setting the stage in Colombia for, yes, a classic Mexican standoff.
For the last couple of decades the Gulf Clan and the communist insurgency known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were Colombia’s two largest cocaine handlers. As such they acted as the primary sources for a generation of Mexican drug traffickers who in turn smuggled vast drifts of blow across the border to the lucrative U.S. market.
More recently, amid the seismic shifts in the Colombian underworld, some of the largest and most ruthless Mexican cartels took matters into their own hands—sending down their own experienced personnel to enhance the production process, build new alliances, and prop up local crime groups in order to make sure coke quotas are met.
After a slight dip earlier this decade, Colombian cocaine production has made a strong comeback, rising by about 50 percent in both 2016 and 2017. U.S. authorities estimate some 247,000 acres of coca leaves, which are the raw ingredient of the drug, are now under cultivation. That amounts to about 1,200 metric tons a year of refined powder (which would be 1.2 million kilograms), according to the watchdog group InsightCrime.
A kilo of Sherlock Holmes’ drug of choice now retails for as much as $30,000 Stateside. And that’s before it’s cut for sale on the street. Given the money at stake, it’s no wonder that Mexican syndicates like the Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas, and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) have launched a mission to “take over” the Colombian cocaine trade, as El Tiempo, one of the nation’s largest newspapers, reported last month.
“The Mexican cartels have already started to acquire coca plantations in Colombia,” Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez told reporters in late January. “We have captured agronomists and engineers from [Mexico] who are improving laboratories and crop productivity,” said Martínez, who went on to explain that his office issued more than 100 indictments against Mexican cartel members in 2017.
“[Mexican cartels] are going to end up controlling the country’s criminal structures,” said Medellin crime analyst Fernando Quijano, in a recent interview with Mexican news outlet APRO. In fact, Quijano made that statement just before quitting his post after 20 years on the job, due to what he said was the government’s failure to protect him and his family from death threats he’d received from foreign crime groups.
Evidence suggests that drug trafficking organizations from Mexico are seeking new and qualified allies in South America, such as dissident FARC fronts that have refused to demobilize. The Sinaloa cartel has been accused of funding their old partners the Gulf Clan, as well as establishing ties with the National Liberation Army (ELN), another left-leaning guerrilla group seeking to occupy territory left vacant after the FARC armistice.
In addition to those major players the Mexican crime groups have also begun working with entrenched local gangs, such as Los Chatas and the Puntilleros, that control regional smuggling networks. In all, Aztec affiliates have been detected in at least 10 Colombian states, including the major urban centers around Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali.
“Drug War Failure”
According to Attorney General Martínez, the invasion by foreign crime groups was a primary topic during a meeting last December in Cartagena among Mexican, Colombian, and American officials, including U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In the wake of that conference, the Santos government vowed to double down on its Drug War efforts, including a promise to increase coca field eradication efforts by over 20 percent from last year. However, some observers have suggested that goal might not be realistic or logistically viable, especially with Mexican narcos offering fresh incentives to ramp up production and fight back against both law enforcement and competitors.
“Turning these hardened killers loose into the coca fields, jungles, and city streets of Colombia should greatly raise the violence levels,” said Bunker, and could “reignite the viciousness of some of the indigenous Colombia crime groups.”
Indeed, the Mexican cartels have already been accused of involvement in at least one massacre, in which seven people were killed in the southern Cauca region in late January.
The influx of Mexican traffickers represents “the latest manifestation of the failure of the War on Drugs,” said Hernando Zuleta, Director of the Center for Studies on Drugs and Security at the University of the Andes in Bogotá.
“In the ’90s, Colombia managed to dismantle [its] cartels but this relative success produced the emergence of the Mexican cartels,” Zuleta said, which are now looking to pick up where Escobar and his cronies left off.
“They’re seeking to guarantee long-term relationships with suppliers and have control over the entire route, from Colombia to the final markets. In terms of industrial organization, what they’re after with this is vertical integration.”
Bunker agrees with Zuleta about the cartels’ Hydra-like capacity to grow a new head whenever an old one is lopped off:
“For decades, when the U.S. or an allied country—such as Colombia in this instance—have implemented a policy to fight illicit trafficking or target a group engaging in that activity, the outcomes go sideways on us,” he said.
“Nature—as well as the criminal economy—abhors a vacuum, which in this instance is being filled by opportunistic, predatory, and powerful Mexican cartels.”
The criminal invasion trickling south from Mexico has further jeopardized fragile peace talks with FARC and ELN guerrillas and might also impact Colombia’s increasingly fraught relationship with Washington.
About nine tenths of all cocaine that currently enters the U.S. each year comes from Colombia, despite more than 10 billion taxpayer dollars spent battling the cartels over the last decade and a half.
Because of this, President Trump has made multiple threats over the last several months to cut assistance to the “Jewel of the Andes” over what he perceives as an insufficiently stringent approach to drug interdiction.
Earlier this year, POTUS even went so far as to accuse countries like Colombia of “laughing at” the U.S., for receiving aid money while drug smuggling soars. Other Republicans have accused Santos—a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize—of being soft on the FARC, and have advocated a more hard-line approach for dealing with the cocaine boom.
The issue is particularly delicate here because growing coca remains one of the few viable industries in rural regions with little infrastructure or government presence—conditions that also allow armed actors of all stripes to use poor farmers as an endless source of cheap labor.
A major building block of the peace accords with the FARC centered on infrastructure development and crop-swapping aid for coca farmers. But the Santos regime has had a tough time fulfilling those terms, partly because of security challenges and political infighting, but also due to a lack of funding. A 10-year, $4.5 billion aid package promised under the Obama administration has already been frozen by Trump, and more cuts could be on the way.
Zuleta explained that the presence of Mexican mobsters in coca cultivation zones is also a major obstacle to peace.
For certain regions “the economic power of the organizations that profit from the [drug] business has become the main constraint,” he said. “These organizations are using money and violence to prevent the implementation of substitution programs.”
The government’s broken promises and empty pockets, along with the quick-cash allure of the gangster lifestyle, have pushed large contingents from both the FARC and ELN to turn their backs on reconciliation attempts. A historic ceasefire between ELN and the government broke down during the first weeks of 2018, and some reports hint the government might have underestimated the total number of FARC dissidents.
“Caught in such an untenable position, it is of little wonder that demobilized guerrillas would begin to re-arm under the leadership of Sinaloa, CJNG, or the Zetas,” said Bunker, the author of Criminal Insurgencies in Mexico and the Americas.
Given the decades of Drug-War failure and cartel whack-a-mole, some observers contend a new anti-trafficking paradigm is needed—one that stresses economic and humanitarian aid over militant attempts at prohibition, in order to de-fang paramilitary crime groups and end Colombia’s version of a Mexican standoff.
“The [U.S.] has in Colombia an ally in the Drug War,” security expert Zuleta said. “However, continuing with the traditional strategy is a mistake that will not affect drug trafficking—and can only generate more violence.”
If Trump makes good on his warning to curtail additional aid, or makes such aid contingent on a more belligerent stance, he’ll again undercut Bogotá’s attempts at peace and coca reform. Ironically, such a hardball response would play directly into the hands of the Mexican cartels and their accomplices, allowing them to further solidify their cocaine coup in Colombia—and eventually leading to more and cheaper “joy dust” on America’s streets.
“Any time a large business—licit or illicit—can create a vertical chain of production, refinement, transportation, and distribution then it has a edge over its competitors,” said Bunker, referring to the changing narco landscape in Colombia.
“Under such a scenario, the Mexican cartels would increasingly become a hemispheric threat [to] the U.S. and her allies throughout Latin America.”