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Narcotrafficking in Colombia and Mexico, a long-time liaison

Each country has had its own policies and programs which were clearly expressed in the Plan Colombia (1999) and the Mérida Initiative (2008).

The confluence of the drug trafficking histories in Colombia and México is not from now. For both countries, its origins and evolution are linked to economic developmental structural crises –laid out as agrarian and extractive economies – and to transition periods towards modern societies with urban growth determinants.

This compromises ample sectors of the marginalized population and involves unscrupulousness elites, willing to do anything to increase their incomes and strengthen their bank accounts and their companies in conventional economies, with funds coming from illegal activities.

In performing a comparative analysis of the history of organized narcocrime in both countries, there are several common elements.

In business in the second half of the twentieth century

Both in Mexico as in Colombia the origin of narcotrafficking has its background at the end of the ninetieth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. During this time drugs such as marihuana, opiates and cocaine were used in Colombia for medical reasons.

However, the main reason for narcotrafficking to emerge as a growing economy was declaring consumption illegal, in times when the United States promoted countries to accept opium control through laws to punish offenders. Little attention was given to the production of psychoactive substances in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

In this context, they celebrated the International Opium Convention in Shanghai (1909) and the Conference of The Hague (1912), a starting point in the fight against drugs which was reassumed in 1921, after the First World War. In Colombia, this trend was placed in Law 11 of 1920, when the Penal Code included penalties for trafficking and trade of narcotics.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, they declared two generalized crops illegal: marihuana and poppy plants, which are the base for producing opium and heroin.

Agrarian crisis, marginality, and poverty

Both the agrarian crises and the dependence on intensive extractivism, as well as the growth of marginality and poverty, increased economic informality, and unlawfulness. The institutional impossibility of providing employment and welfare policies maked many perceive illegal migration to developed countries the possibility of building their life projects. This led some to become acquainted with narcotrafficking and organized crime networks.

The coca cycle began after the end the “marimba” (marihuana) cycle of the 70s. The new hegemony was boosted with the migration of Colombians to the United States which helped to conquer the consumer market.

After a decade, a set of economic, social and political circumstances enabled the development of the narcotrafficking industry in Colombia. As an increase of the battle of the government was doubled as it had to fight the guerrillas as well as the increasing consumption and demand in the United States and Europe, and tailored with a mistaken antidrug policy which privileged the battle against production but tolerated consumption.

To the preceding certain structural elements which motivated important sectors of the population to get in the narcotrafficking business were added, including:

  • A precarious economic growth in the 70s
  • A greater impoverishment of the low and middle classes
  • The possibility of consolidating narcotrafficking centers in cities with the abetment of important social and institutional sectors
  • The existence of public servants and authorities which served as accomplices to the expansion of the phenomenon 
  • An emergence of an ordinary crime of the lower middle class which turned into the emerging class amidst narcotrafficking  
  • A swift enrichment leading an important group of narcotraffikers to establish relations with the economic and political elites and undermine institutionality by introducing narcotrafficking capital into the ecoomy

During the 80s, cocaine consumption in the world increased significantly, exponentialic society and the State.

Cartels were consolidated as mafia organizations which introduced capital to the economy through activities such as real estate, trade, tourism, hospitality, transportation, healthcare, housing, education and even sporting activities.

Contraband route use

The existence of ancestral contraband practices and its respective routes inherited from old colonial processes were the initial support for narcotrafficking in both countries. Later, demand begins to invigorate the business and persecution increased prices even for the consumer market and spiked prices which only the rivalry of cartels could stop.

These routes served for the marihuana trade (the 60s and 70s); then cocaine trafficking arrived in Mexico in an alliance with Colombian cartels and finally, for Mexico, the industry expanded with the development of synthetic drugs, mainly amphetamines.

The two fundamental deployment areas were the Urabá (northwest of Colombia, near Panama) and the Province of La Guajira (Colombian northeast). The Medellin Cartel operated the Atlantic coast and the Province of Cauca.

In this manner, the narcotraffikers found support in smugglers established in the region and then made alliances to export the drugs.

According to National Association of Financial Institutions (ANIF, for its Spanish acronym) in 1978, marihuana in Colombia represented almost 39% of the exports, an equivalent to 7.5% of the GDP of the country, 3.2% of the agricultural GDP and 29% of the GDP trade sector. Money was laundered by sub-invoicing imports.

The marihuana economy also encouraged and increased institutional corruption and blinded the police forces and the justice system. According to ANIF, more than COL $4 billion was paid in kickbacks to police and military officers and judges during this time.

In Colombia, the end of the marihuana boom was due to legislative measures against production and trade, without great progress such as blocking roads and transportation routes. It also contributed to the expansion of crops in California at the beginning of the 80s, due to personal use consumer production legalization in the United States.

Family leaderships and cartels

The forming of narcotraffikers groups stemming from family leaderships, kinships, and friends to control production, routes, and markets; added to disputes amongst different bands, to finally consolidate networks and alliances forming cartels and developing transnational relationships, which articulated businessmen, producers, transporters and marketers in a highly profitable productive chain.

In Colombia, mainly three cartels are formed, the Medellín Cartel (stemming from ordinary delinquency and organized crime, emerald traffickers and marihuana producers and traffickers ), the Cali Cartel (formed by middles class citizens with ties to legal economic activities and important business experience), and the North of Valle Cartel (which came out of obscurity when the prior two cartels began the cartel wars in Colombia) and lastly small disengaged groups, stemming from internal disputes, death or incarceration of drug kingpins.

In Mexico, there are several perceptions over the dimension of this phenomenon. One of them from the Solicitor General's Office according to which there are two great cells (Guzmán and Cárdenas) divided into seven drug cartels:

  • Cartel del Golfo,
  • Cartel de Oaxaca,
  • Cartel de Juárez,
  • Cartel de Colima or of the Amezcua’s,
  • Cartel de Tijuana or of the Arellano Félix’s,
  • Cartel de Sinaloa,
  • Cartel del Milenio or of the Valencia’s and
  • the Cartel de los Zetas.

Money laundering and armed security

In the scope of the economic relations, the drug kingpins of the Mexican and Colombian cartels seeked to legalize their drug fortunes by laundering funds. For this, they developed entangled forms of using front men, ever so qualified and investing in consolidated sectors of the economy such as agriculture, cattle ranching, mining activities, education, sporting activities, and finances, among many other legal activities.

The organizations of both countries have powerful armed groups for their security and selective violence practices which may be directed or indiscriminate, criminal or genocidal, against people, territories, and populations. In Mexico, for instance, there are Los Zetas, which initially were devoted only to security but later began their own drug business.

The fight against narcotrafficking

Each country has had its own programs and policies which were clearly expressed in the Plan Colombia (1999) and the Mérida Initiative (2008), which set the general North American antidrug policies and guidelines and its relationship with both countries, which had the support of the DEA and the CIA. However, the results were far from being successful and the drug industry reinvented itself at every opportunity it had and grew despite the institutional efforts to subdue it.

Currently, it is absolutely clear for both countries, that a national drug policy should be based on the evidence sustained with the best information possible over the effectiveness of the strategies and programs implemented to face different dimensions linked to production, trafficking, distribution, as well as money laundering practices and its impact over the social, economic and political life of each country and only until a coherent public health policy directed to treating consumption and reduce demand is implemented throughout, will this curse be controlled.

This implies having national drug policies both in Mexico as in Colombia focused on public health and respecting human rights. It needs to have comprehensive programs and strategies with differential focus depending on the territory, population groups, and intervention needs. Furthermore, it should also consider its possible impacts over indiscriminate groups and their vulnerability situation –such as women, ethnic groups, or impoverished people– as well as consumer healthcare and safety. The prior needs to be linked to a criminal policy which faces the phenomenon in a direct and frontal battle against the great beneficiaries of the narcotrafficking economy.

Consejo Editorial