The Colombian Drug Cartels


The Colombian Cartels have absolute control within their own country. They dominate not only the production but also the importation and distribution of cocaine in the United States and other western nations. Of the 20 current cartels 5 are dominant. Each cartel is structured around an extended family based on blood, marriage and parenthood. A family is despotically ruled by a single member, usually the eldest. Members can be growers, processors, smugglers, bankers, lawyers, chemists, sellers, enforcers, assassins and corruptors. A corruptor's job is to recruit officials all over the western hemisphere so that the cartels can continue to operate with as little interference as possible.

Colombia-based drug cartels are responsible for most of the world's cocaine production and wholesale cocaine distribution, although traffickers from Mexico have assumed a much larger role in the transportation and distribution of cocaine. Colombia's strategic location makes it a logical hub for cocaine trafficking. It shares borders with Peru and Bolivia, two countries that, in addition to Colombia, grow large amounts of coca, and it is reasonably close to the United States (Bogota, the capital city, is two-and-a-half hours by air from Miami). Because Colombia is the only South American country with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, a wide variety of air and maritime drug smuggling routes are readily available to traffickers from Colombia.
Transporters hired by the traffickers carry the raw product, often through hidden jungle trails, to locations where cocaine paste is extracted from the leaves. The coca paste is then transported by land, sea, and air to large, concealed laboratories, far from the coca growing regions, where it is processed into cocaine hydrochloride, the white crystalline powder commonly sold to users. Every available form of transportation is used to smuggle the cocaine abroad: airplanes, ships, trucks, and trains. The risk is greatest in the transportation and distribution areas, and the financial rewards are commensurate with the risks. Seizures of drugs being smuggled into the United States have netted shipments with street values in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In 1989, a record seizure in Sylmar, California, uncovered 47,554 pounds of cocaine with an estimated street value of $3.2 billion.
During the 1980s, the Colombian drug lords relied heavily on organized groups from Mexico to transport cocaine into the United States after it was delivered to Mexico from Colombia. Currently, the greatest proportion of cocaine available in the United States is still entering the United States through Mexico. Using their skills as seasoned drug traffickers with a long tradition of polydrug smuggling, crime lords from Mexico soon established cocaine trafficking routes and contacts. In the late 1980s, Colombia-based organizations who had paid transporters from Mexico cash for their services, began to give them cocaine--in many cases up to half of the shipment--as payment for their services. As a result, the organizations from Mexico evolved from mere transporters of cocaine to major cocaine traffickers in their own right, and today pose a grave threat to the United States.
Structure in the United States: Colombia-based cocaine trafficking groups in the United States continue to be organized around "cells" that operate within a given geographic area. Since these cells are based on family relationships or close friendships, outsiders attempting to penetrate the cell run a high risk of arousing suspicion. Some cells specialize in a particular facet of the drug trade, such as cocaine transport, storage, wholesale distribution, or money laundering. Each cell, which may be comprised of 10 or more employees, operates with little or no knowledge about the other cells. In this way, should one of the cells be compromised, the operations of the other cells would not be endangered.
A rigid top down command and control structure is characteristic of these groups. The head of each cell reports to a regional director who is responsible for the overall management of several cells. The regional director, in turn, reports directly to one of the top drug lords, or his designate, based in Colombia. Trusted lieutenants of the organization in the United States have discretion in the day to day operations, but ultimate authority rests with the leadership in Colombia.
Encryption: Traffickers from Colombia are increasingly employing state-of-the-art encryption devices to translate their communications into indecipherable code. This evolving technology presents a significant impediment to law enforcement investigations of criminal activities. In the past, the necessity for frequent communication between drug lords in Colombia and their surrogates in the United States made the drug-trafficking organizations vulnerable to law enforcement wiretaps. Now, however, through the use of encryption technology, they can protect their electronic business communications from law enforcement interception and "hide" information that could be used to build criminal cases against them.
Heroin: In recent years, Colombia-based traffickers have used their existing cocaine marketing channels to expand into the heroin trade. Today, opium poppy cultivation and heroin trafficking are an integral part of their operations.
The opium poppy is grown along the eastern slopes of the Central Andean Mountain ranges in the central part of Colombia. Some growers appear to work under contract to specific traffickers. Under this contract arrangement, the trafficker provides the farmer with the seeds and agricultural supplies needed to grow opium poppies. Opium poppy farmers in Colombia collect raw opium gum from mature poppy capsules and transport it to opiate "brokers." The brokers, in turn, sell the opium to chemists who process it first into morphine base and later into heroin. The chemists often work on contract for the trafficking groups that smuggle the heroin into the United States.
Smuggling is accomplished in a variety of ways including wrapping small quantities of heroin in condoms and having couriers swallow them and concealing heroin inside hollowed out shoes, luggage, and in the lining of clothes. In 1998, a shipment of artificial flowers was discovered to contain heroin concealed inside the flowers' stems.
The Colombian heroin trade is currently dominated by independent trafficking groups that operate outside the control of the major cocaine crime syndicates. Because the major syndicates have already developed well established transportation and wholesale cocaine distribution channels, they too can be expected to diversify their product line to include increasing amounts of heroin.
Traffickers from Colombia have been able to solidify and expand their position in the U.S. heroin market by distributing high-quality heroin and by initially undercutting the price of their competitors. They also use marketing strategies, such as including free samples of heroin in cocaine shipments, in order to build a clientele.
Trafficking groups operating in New York and Philadelphia even market their drug using brand names - like No Way Out and Death Wish - as a way to instil customer recognition and loyalty.
These marketing techniques have allowed the traffickers from Colombia to expand and ultimately dominate the heroin market. In fact, the DEA's Heroin Signature Program, which determines the origin of the heroin sold on the street, found that 65 percent (356 kilograms) of the heroin seized in the United States in 1998 was produced in Colombia

Until recently, the Colombia-based drug trafficking organizations, collectively known as the Cali mafia, dominated the international cocaine market. Although some elements of the Cali mafia continue to play an important role in the world's wholesale cocaine market, events in recent years have accelerated the decline of the Cali mafia's influence. These events include the capture of the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers in 1995, the death of Jose Santacruz-Londono in March 1996, and the surrender of Pacho Herrera-Buitrago in September 1996. In the absence of these powerful drug lords, the drug trade has become more decentralized. Power is swiftly passing to experienced traffickers who have moved out from under the shadow of the Cali traffickers and are now seizing opportunities to increase their own share of the drug trade.
These enterprising traffickers come primarily from two areas. One is the northern Valle del Cauca region, of which Cali is the capital city, located on Colombia's southeast coast. The second area is the Caribbean North Coast. While traffickers in these regions operate more independently than the Cali mafia, they nevertheless remain very powerful and by working with counterparts in Mexico, are still responsible for most of the world's cocaine production and wholesale distribution.


Just one: the growing and distribution of cocaine. Most of their money is kept in banks in various Caribbean islands and have enough of it to buy whatever vehicles, equipment and weapons they want. The only thing holding them back has been their war with each other, often in public areas caring nothing for innocent people killed in the crossfire. If someone offends the cartel then they will kill not only the offender but his entire family as well. Also if a member is captured and cooperates with the authorities then his family will be tortured and killed. If he keeps quiet then his family will be well looked after. Worst of all the cartels have no fear of the legal authorities or government, openly retaliating against them. 

The Medellin Cartel

By the mid1970s, it became apparent to law enforcement that a well organized smuggling effort was being orchestrated from abroad. Trafficking networks in the United States, controlled from Colombia, were discovered to be running stash houses, moving money, and developing drug market networks for their suppliers back home.
The first to dominate this trade were the organized criminal groups headquartered in Medellin, Colombia, led by violent criminals like the Ochoa brothers, Jose Rodriguez Gacha, Carlos Lehder, and Pablo Escobar. These individuals ruled the drug trade in Colombia and in major cities in the United States, such as Miami and New York, with an iron fist.
As with most organized crime leaders throughout history, their climb to success was rooted in bribery, intimidation, and murder. However, one by one the leaders of the most violent organized criminal group in history were brought to justice by the Colombian National Police (CNP).

Pablo Escobar may well have been the most violent criminal in history. He was the mastermind behind the 1989 bombing of an Avianca commercial airliner that took the lives of 110 people. He was reported to have arranged the bombing to kill two people he suspected of being informants. Escobar also placed bounties ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 on the lives of police officers in Colombia; as many as 2,000 police officers and civilians were murdered each year in Medellin. In June 1991, Escobar surrendered to authorities, but escaped from prison in July 1992. For the next 17 months, Escobar was the target of the largest manhunt in Colombian history. Finally, in December 1993, the Colombian National Police killed Escobar in a fire fight at a private residence in downtown Medellin.

Carlos Lehder was drawn to drug trafficking for two reasons: profits and politics. Lehder was an admirer of such political figures as Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Adolf Hitler.
He was also intensely antiAmerican. While in an American prison in the mid1970s, he conceived of the idea of smuggling cocaine into the United States the same way marijuana was smuggled. Rather than hiding small amounts of cocaine in luggage or on airline passengers, Lehder planned to transport it in large quantities on small, private aircraft. The huge profits he expected to realize from this plan would finance his political ambitions in his native Colombia. Out of prison in 1976, Lehder eventually bought a sizable portion of Norman's Cay, a Bahamian island about 225 miles southeast of Miami. On this small island he built an extended airstrip as a refueling stop for the light planes that transported his cocaine to secret airstrips in the United States. His inclination to use violence eventually tripped him up, when he was suspected of involvement in the 1984 assassination of Colombia's Justice Minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. Outraged by the terrorist tactics employed by the Medellin organization, the Colombian Government turned Lehder over to the DEA and extradited him to the United States in February 1987.
Lehder was convicted and sentenced to 135 years in federal prison. He subsequently cooperated in the U.S. investigation of Panama dictator Manuel Noriega and received a reduced sentence in return for his testimony.

The Cali Mafia

With the gradual elimination of most of the major figures in the Medellin groups, ascendancy among traffickers in Colombia passed to groups based in Cali, Colombia, about 200 miles south of Medellin. Unlike their predecessors in the Medellin cartel, the members of the Cali mafia avoided blatant acts of violence and instead tried to pass themselves off as legitimate businessmen. The Cali mafia gained widespread notice when, on April 11, 1985, the largest clandestine cocaine lab ever seized in the United States was discovered in rural Minden, New York. This lab, later traced to Jose Santacruz-Londono, the number three leader in the Cali mafia, was discovered following a fire on a 10-acre farm. State Police and DEA agents found an elaborately equipped laboratory capable of producing over $700 million worth of cocaine.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the members of the Cali mafia generated billions of dollars in drug revenues per year. They operated a sophisticated drug trafficking enterprise that used the best strategies of major international businesses, while maintaining the secrecy and compartmentalization of terrorist organizations.
Operating a system of insulated cells in cities throughout the United States, the Cali mafia employed an army of surrogates who were responsible for every detail of the cocaine trafficking business, from car rental, to pager and cell phone purchase, to the storage of cocaine in safe houses, to the keeping of inventory and accounts. Cali mafia leaders coerced cooperation from employees by demanding information about their close relatives that could be used later if the employee betrayed the organization or made errors that cost the mafia its profits. Members of the Cali mafia included the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers, Jose Santacruz-Londono, Helmer "Pacho" Herrera-Buitrago, and Victor Julio Patino-Fomeque. However, despite the substantial evidence against these criminals, it was impossible to extradite them to the United States to face justice since extradition had been outlawed by Colombia's 1991 constitution. Therefore, the DEA worked with the CNP to provide information that eventually led to the arrest or surrender of the Cali drug lords in Colombia. The combined efforts of the DEA and the CNP paid off in June 1995, when the Cali mafia began to collapse. During the summer of 1995, five major leaders of the Cali mafia were arrested, and by September 1996, all of the remaining Cali "kingpins" sought by the CNP had been captured.


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