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Colombia: Drugs, War and Cartels

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Colombia: Drugs, War and Cartels

Colombia has been a very unstable country for the past fifty years. Beginning in the

1960s Marxist guerilla groups formed. The two strongest groups called themselves the National

Liberation Army (ELN) and the other was the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia

(FARC). Making things worse, in the 1970s drug trafficking became a huge problem for

Colombia. Drug cartels pretty much controlled the country starting in the mid-1970s. By the

1990s right-wing paramilitaries had formed. They were made mainly of drug traffickers and

landowners. The main paramilitary group called themselves the United Self Defense Forces of

Colombia (AUC).

Since the 1970s, Colombia has been home to some of the most violent and sophisticated

drug trafficking organizations in the world. What started as a small cocaine smuggling business

has, in the last thirty years, blossomed into an enormous multi-national cocaine empire. Starting

in the mid-1970s, marijuana traffickers in Colombia began exporting small quantities of cocaine

to the United States hidden in suitcases. “At that point, cocaine could be processed for $1500 a

kilo in jungle labs and could be sold on the streets of America for as much as $50,000 a kilo”


Today, Colombia supplies up to 80 percent of the world’s cocaine, and about 70 percent

of the cocaine that enters the United States. “Production has been steadily rising, it is up 20

percent in the past fifteen years” (Grossman). Illegal crops remain, by far, the most lucrative of

all the agricultural products in Colombia. The narcotics industry accounts for about three

percent of Colombia’s gross domestic income.

The majority of the coca leaves are grown on large plantations in southern and central

Colombia, most of which are under the control of large drug cartels. “Recently, coca growers

have burned 2.4 million hectares of rain forest to clear for new areas of cultivation” (Grossman).

Poor peasants are recruited to work the land and harvest illicit crops as their major source of

income. In other cases, the FARC forces farmers to pick coca fields.

With its convenient access to the Caribbean Sea, the Isthmus of Panama, and the Pacific

Ocean, Colombia is well equipped to serve as a major exporter of illicit drugs north towards the

U.S. Highly organized smuggling cartels based in cities like Cali, Medellin, and Bogota arrange

for the export of narcotics by the bulk, primarily to the United States.

Narcotics can be shipped from ports along South America’s coastal regions or

transported via ground routes running through Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Traffickers use fishing vessels, commercial cargo ships and stealthier speed boats to smuggle

massive amounts of cocaine from Colombia to Central America, Mexico and several Caribbean

countries. From there they make their way to the U.S. mainland.

In the history of Colombian drug cartels there are two names that will most definitely be

acknowledged, the Medellin cartel and the Cali cartel. These are the most notorious groups of

drug traffickers in the history of Colombia, even perhaps in the world.

The Medellin cartel started off with six members. The leader of this group was Pablo

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