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Colombian Drug Cartels: Government Response Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 21st, 2022


Drug cartels in Columbia refer to organized production and related operations on illegal drugs particularly cocaine. Columbia has been among the leading countries reported to have the most sophisticated and violent organizations dealing with trafficking of drugs worldwide.

The venture started as a small business of trafficking cocaine but now it has turned into an international empire of drug trafficking, not only of cocaine, but of other illegal drugs as well. Additionally, the traffickers have now attained more than adequate capital to invest in the business (Chatsworth 1).

For instance, the traffickers hired experts in engineering from the Unites States of America and from Russia to help build a submarine which has been used to secretly smuggle large volumes of illegal drugs especially cocaine to the U.S.

History of Columbia and the drug problem

How the cartels started

Drug trafficking in Columbia began way back in the 1970s where the leaders started off with smuggling of marijuana but in the mid-1970s, the traffickers started engaging in cocaine trafficking through export of small quantities of cocaine to the U.S. using suite cases. At this point, cocaine was sold freely in the American streets.

With the increasing production, trafficking and consumption of the initial drug marijuana, the United States government in conjunction with that of Columbia launched a campaign on trafficking of drugs referred to as “war on drugs” (Prada 1). Following this prohibition, some of the established producers and traffickers of drugs established unified trafficking cartels.

By 1980s, the demand for drugs had increased resulting to expansion and more organization of the cartels into major criminal organizations which were led by specified members of the groups. Some of these cartels included the Cali cartel, the North Coast cartel and the Medellin cartel among others.

To get a better understanding of the development of the cartels, we will look at how the various cartels were established. The Medellin cartel was one of the leading cartels in Columbia which was operated under Pablo Escobar. This was a ruthless organization which kidnapped and killed people who tried to get in the way of their operations.

As a matter of fact, the Medellin cartel was reported to have caused hundreds of deaths of law enforcement officers, politicians, government officials and even innocent citizens who they encountered during their operations (Tate 1). In order to make their operations much easier, the cartels in-cooperated its operations with various criminal groups in the countries involved.

The Medellin cartel began its operations inside Colombia where they imported coca and processed it into cocaine and distributed it to the United States of America. This put great pressure on the U.S. government and that of Colombia to destroy the cartel by countering it using police and military personnel.

The Cali cartel was established in the southern part of Colombia within the city of Cali with its founders as the Rodrigues brothers, Miguel and Gilberto. The initial operation of Cali cartel was based on kidnappings which were used to raise funds for trafficking of marijuana which later progressed to cocaine. With time, the Cartel’s revenue grew substantially to an estimate of over $7 billion a year (Ramsey 1).

This caused a great impact on the country as justice systems as well as political issues began being influenced by the Cali cartel from different levels.

For instance, the Cali cartel participated a great deal in the downfall of the Medellin cartel as it was involved in the manhunt of the leaders of the Medellin cartel which saw the killing of Pablo Escobar, the ring leader of the Medellin cartel. However, the cartel collapsed as well during time which it was discovered that the cartel had been using the leading companies in Columbia to finance its operations.

Consequences and effects of the cartels on Colombia

As the cartels grew and increased, they began using terror activities with the aim of gaining government support by attaining bargaining power from them. Death rates increased through kidnappings and killings of law enforcement officers, political personalities and citizens.

The year 1989 was reported to have been the most brutal year ever with many deaths per capita which resulted from the violence exhibited by the members of drug cartels. As a matter of fact, for several years when the cartels had gained much strength and power in the country, the rate of deaths in Colombia was reported to have been the highest in the world with an estimated 62 deaths in every 100,000 people (Muse 1).

However, with the current prohibition of drug trafficking, this number has deceased greatly to a low of 39 murders, a number that is even lower than that reported in South Africa. Statistics have shown that more than 90% of these murders are on men.

Kidnapping cases were similarly reported to be high as a total of about 5, 181 kidnappings were reported within a period of seven years. Although this report was based on a worldwide scale, the greatest percentage of it was from Colombia.

With the cultivation of coca being the major illegal operation in Colombia, most of the land in the rural regions of the country had been used on production of coca leaving little land for cultivation of basic plants/foods for the rural residents. An estimate of 281, 553 acres of land was used for cultivation of coca with a total of 430, 000 metric tons of cocaine production potential per year.

Response to drug cartels

International and U.S. response

The increase in the production and trafficking of drugs in Colombia drew a great deal of attention from various countries including the United States of America, several Latin-American countries and organizations as well as international organizations.

To begin with, the U.S. collaborated with the government of Mexico and several other Central American countries and established the Merida initiative which was aimed at combating drug trafficking as a transnational crime. This initiative appropriated funds for provision of training services to military and law enforcement systems to help in strengthening the national justice operations.

Similarly, the endless violence in Mexico has helped bring into the spotlight the response by the Latin American countries on drug trafficking especially on Colombia. New crime organizations including those dealing with drugs in Colombia are being torn apart in a silent but efficient manner by the Bogota extradition operation (Rempel 1).

This has been the reaction of Latin American countries on Colombia’s drug trafficking crime which has seen the sending of many of the leaders of drug cartels to the United States of America to face crime charges. The Latin American countries were drawn to this response as the major cartels, Medellin and Cali exhibited coercive pressure which prevented such extraditions from taking place.

In addition to the U.S. providing funding for military training services, it had a strong reaction on drug traffickers who continued their businesses while they were still in prison cells back home in Colombia. The response by the U.S. on this matter was the transfer of the traffickers to U.S. prisons which are non-luxurious as opposed to those back at home which paved way for their ease access to business operations.

As a matter of fact, this strict response by the U.S. resulted to a steady reduction in organized drug trafficking as well as other crimes, a factor that drove Mexico to reassessing its refusal of extraditing its drug traffickers to the U.S.

Since most of the drugs produced were exported to the United States of America evidenced by cocaine being sold all over the streets back in the 1970s and 1980s, it is only natural that the country had a negative response shown, not only through establishment of extraditions to the U.S., but through support of local programs which were designed to eradicate drug production and trafficking.

Similarly, the United Nations and the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) responded by facilitating production of alternative plants and provided projects for enterprise development, strengthening of institutions, exploitation of natural resources and easy market access for Colombia’s entrepreneurs (Chomsky 1).

Response by Colombian government, citizens and its neighbors

The Colombian government itself was opposed to the then rapidly growing production and trafficking of cocaine especially to the U.S. since the two countries had been allies on economic aspects.

With the futile response by the U.S. government on the production of drugs, the government of Columbia responded to cartels by acting aggressively to them evidenced by the way the government worked hand in hand with the government of the United States of America to curb drug trafficking.

However, since the high demand of cocaine and related drugs was determined to be the major factor contributing to endless drug production, the Colombian government urged the U.S. to take responsibility at home by finding ways to reduce the demand for drugs in the U.S.

This is because consumption of these drugs was high in the U.S. compared to that in Columbia despite the fact that the production itself was done in Columbia. This was an indication that the demand arising from drug abusers in the U.S. was partly a contributing factor to the problem.

This is why one of the Colombia’s responses to drug trafficking was to advice the U.S. to reduce demand of the products, a request that was initially neglected but later the U.S. government saw the sense in it and began working on the same. Additionally, the government deployed National police who tracked down the leaders of drug cartels and destroyed the already produced drugs as well as those in plantations.

As a matter of fact, the operations of the Colombian National Police contributed to the downfall of many of the cartels including the most powerful ones such as the Medellin and Cali cartels (Jung 7).

Due to the poor economic conditions in Colombia, some of its citizens responded well on the production and trafficking of drugs as they saw it as a way of creating more income to community members either directly by getting involved in the operation or indirectly by means such as creation of labor or improved living standards among society members.

Most of these people were uneducated whose population was very high considering the low levels of education in Columbia back then. However, many other citizens were against the vice including the educated elites who understood very well the impacts of such drugs on humans and on the society as a whole. Religious groups were similarly opposed to it and they all pressured the government to speed up ways of combating drug production.

Others responded aggressively to the production as they needed more land to cultivate consumption plants for their families. Different countries neighboring Columbia had different responses to the high levels of drug production in Colombia.

The most notably neighbor was Mexico which began engaging in drug production and trafficking following the amount of cash flow especially in Southern Colombia from drug trafficking.

As a matter of fact, illegal drug trafficking in Mexico grew to the point that Mexico established transit zones which were used to export cocaine and other drugs to the U.S. This was precisely the reason why the U.S.-Mexico border was established in efforts to curb the problem.

The main actors

Who they are

Colombia has been historically known for high levels of violence and resultant deaths. The country had various criminal groups which altogether contributed to the incredibly high rates of violence in the country. Drug cartels were among the most powerful of these groups.

However, the main actors who facilitated the formation of cartels were the guerrillas which were superior organizations which supported and strengthened the operations of the cartels. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) were the two most powerful guerrilla organizations which supported the operations of drug cartels (Romero 62).

Their major role was using the Colombian government to mask the operations of cartels. They did this by running for public offices especially in the police and military agents. The guerillas particularly participated in protecting the fields and other operational fields of cartels especially those of cocaine production. This, they did in exchange for large amounts of money they were paid by the cocaine traffickers.

Cartel leaders and the president

Similarly, some of the paramilitary groups were direct actors in drug cartels as they were also used in guarding and protecting production and operation fields. The government, through the then president Juan Manuel Santos was a major actor in dismantling many of the strong cartels.

Although the government had previously failed in the war against drugs, the new constitution that was implemented in the year 1991 played a big role in ending the drug war (Wilson 7).

This was through its clause of extradition of drug traffickers to the U.S. which led to many of the traffickers to surrendering to the government in exchange for lighter sentences due to the fear of the conditions in which they would be exposed to in the prison cells in the U.S.

However, the guerillas were said to have benefited from the resultant break-up of the cartels as they used their finances to support and establish new producers and traffickers of drugs. The paramilitary groups continued to receive most of their finances from drug funds and therefore they continued to protect the drug production fields.

Additionally, the leaders of the cartels enhanced their efforts of undermining law enforcement through giving of bribes to police and threatening court officials (Meyer 1). This way, the leaders maintained their role of protecting the interests of drug production and trafficking.

Extend of influence of drug cartels

Influence on society

The high rates of drug production and trafficking in Colombia had impacts to the society. As the production of cocaine and marijuana continued to increase, more and more small farmers became dependent on the cultivation of these drugs for livelihood.

Besides the cultivators themselves, thousands of Colombian citizens became dependent on income derived from cultivation of these drugs through indirect participation such as transportation, picking of the plants on seasonal terms and guarding the fields among others.

The production and trafficking of drugs through cartels resulted to improved economic stability, increased living standards and income rates as the business turned out to be a very significant source of wealth, not only to Colombia, but to most of the Caribbean coast cities. These countries experienced great economic prosperity which had never been experienced before due to previous poor economic conditions of the countries.

However, at the same time, violence cases related to cultivation and trafficking of drugs increased a great deal and most importantly, these operations led to disintegration of police and military institutions as well as other judicial organizations. This resulted mainly due to the in-cooperation of officials from these institutions into the operations of cartels through corruption and bribery deals with the cartel leaders (Lopez 1).

Since most of the rural land was used in the cultivation of marijuana and coca, the general food production rate of the country declined gradually. Similarly, the few farmers left were faced with the challenge of laborers as they became scarce and quite expensive due to the competition in marijuana cultivation. This stimulated inflation on land markets and many legal businesses were involved in money laundering by the cartels.

These included banks, hotels and especially casinos resulting to lower tax rates to the government. The society’s traditional morals and values were deteriorated as more and more innocent society members engaged in the vice, directly or indirectly due to their desperate need for source of income for their livelihood.

Consequently, violence rates in Colombia and any other country practicing the same business became high even if resulting from other factors due to the history of violence in such countries.

Influence on the government and political system

With the use of trained assassins, cartel leaders planned murder and assassination plots on government officials in their bid to prevent the government’s move to extradite them to the U.S.

As a result, the country’s judicial system was dismantled and a great number of Colombian citizens moved out of the country and settled elsewhere (The Daily beast 1). Life in Colombia was devaluated as assassinations became more and more eminent with murder becoming a usual way to earn money.

Due to their wealth and economic power, many drug loads took control over the country’s economy through construction of cheap rental houses basically to buy votes from the society, became proprietors in big national businesses such as in media houses and they also showed interests in politics as some formed their own political parties which they publicized through their own media houses (Shifter 19).

For instance, Escobar ended up being elected as a congressman in the 1982 elections. The nation was also faced with the problem of addiction to cocaine and marijuana among other drugs as the finest quality drugs were exported leaving the poor quality drugs for consumption by the Colombians.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of Colombian citizens suffered from nervous problems some of which were permanent and the government had the challenge of facing this problem.


The high rates of drug trafficking in Columbia evoked response from the government as well as other countries especially the U.S. since most of the drugs were exported into the United States. The government, using funding from the U.S. and international organizations such as UN and USAID established police and military training services who were assigned the duty of preventing further progression of the business.

Due to the resultant corruption and bribery techniques used by the cartel leaders to curb the advances of the government, the Colombian government in collaboration with the U.S government established the extradition rule which would see drug traffickers imprisoned in the U.S. rather than in their home country (Miller 1).

May be the real solution to this problem is not eliminating or imprisoning the drug dealers but rather acting on the core factors that led to the growth of the business. For instance, the Colombian government should establish sustainable economy for its people where citizens will have alternative sources of income through provision of job opportunities may be by promoting industrialization and other developmental activities.

This way, the citizens will not lack means of earning livelihood and therefore will be less likely to engage in illegal businesses. However, this is a big step and would require great support from international organizations and other industrialized countries.

Similarly, the U.S. government should curb the factors that cause such a high demand of cocaine in the country. In this case, the drug traffickers will not produce as much drugs as they did because of the lack of demand.

Works Cited

Chatsworth, John. “Roots of violence in Colombia”. David Rockefeller Center for Latin.

American studies: Harvard University. (2003). Web.

Chomsky, Noam. “”. Rogue states. (2000). Web.

Jung, Walter. “Exports, growth and casualty in developing countries”. Journal of development economics. 18.2 (1985): 1 – 12.

Lopez, Andres. “From drug lords to warlords: Twentieth century drug traffickers”. CBS interactive business network resource library. (2003). Web.

Meyer Cordula. “Colombia’s cocaine cartels learn a new trick”. Spiegel online: undersea trafficking. (2012). Web.

Miller Sarah. “”. The Christian Science monitor. (2010). Web.

Muse, Toby. “”. The guardian: World news, Colombia. (2012). Web.

Prada, Juan. “Latin America breaks rank with U.S. over war on drugs”. Limaohio.com: The Lima news. (2012). Web.

Ramsey, Geoffrey. “”. The Christian Science monitor: Latin America monitor. (2012). Web.

Rempel, William. “”. Cable News Network (CNN), Edition: international. (January 19 2012). Web.

Romero, Mauricio. “Changing identities and contested settings: regional elites and the paramilitaries in Colombia”. International journal of politics, culture and society. 14.1 (2000): 51 – 69.

Shifter, Michael. “Colombia on the brink”. Foreign affairs. 78.4 (1999): 14 – 21

Tate, Winfred. “”. Washington D.C. Foreign policy in focus. (1999). Web.

The Daily beast. “Drug cartels and terrorist organizations vs. the Colombian ministers. HMUN Press corps. (2012). Web.

Wilson, James. “Coffee or poppies? Colombian growers under the spotlight”. Financial Times. (October 25 2001). Print.

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