Mar 04
Guatemalan National Police Chief Baltazar González was arrested Tuesday, along with the head of the U.S.-aided police narcotics unit, for plotting to steal cocaine. (Photo Source: El Periódico [Guatemala].)


“The Government of Guatemala (GOG) is actively working to strengthen its drug enforcement capability. Extensive training, and the provision of equipment and infrastructure for the Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations (DOAN), and the Narcotics Prosecutors, continues.”

— From the 2003 Congressional Budget Justification of the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement bureau, released in May 2002.

“Corruption forced the dissolution of the Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations (DOAN), which was plagued by scandals ranging from extra-judicial killings in Chocon, to the theft of 200% more drugs than were officially seized by police. INL support for interdiction efforts will include the training of the new counternarcotics unit (the SAIA), as well as operational support and equipment maintenance. … After the dissolution of the DOAN, INL provided extensive training to the 400 new SAIA agents at the Regional Counternarcotics Training Center.”

— From the 2004 Congressional Budget Justification of the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement bureau, released in June 2003.


“Three high-level members of the Guatemalan Anti-Narcotics Police (Servicio de Analisis e Informacion Antinarcoticos, or SAIA) have been arrested on charges of conspiring to import and distribute cocaine in the United States. … The three defendants named in the indictment are Adan Castillo Lopez, a/k/a ‘Adan Castillo Aguilar,’ Jorge Aguilar Garcia, and Rubilio Orlando Palacios. Castillo is Chief of the SAIA and the highest ranking anti-narcotics officer in Guatemala. ‘More than corrupting the public trust, these Guatemalan Police Officials have been Trojan horses for the very addiction and devastation that they were entrusted to prevent,’ said DEA Administrator [Karen] Tandy.”

— From a November 16, 2005 Department of Justice press release.


“FY 2010 funds will support GOG efforts to recruit and vet new SAIA (anti drug police) by providing polygraph examiners and investigative training, and training that incorporates an anticorruption component. INL provides equipment and logistical support for SAIA law enforcement and interdiction operations.”

— From the 2010 Program and Budget Guide [PDF] (successor to the Congressional Budget Justification) of the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement bureau, released in late 2009.

“The director-general of the Guatemalan police, the chief of its anti-narcotics unit and a third official were arrested Tuesday as suspects in a case involving the theft of a cocaine shipment and a handful of dead policemen. … [T]he five murdered policemen, five more under arrest and the three detained commanders formed part of a criminal structure dedicated to stealing drugs. [Arrested National Police Chief Baltazar] Gómez was, at the time, the chief of the Servicio de Analisis e Informacion Antinarcoticos (SAIA), [Current SAIA Director Nelly] Bonilla the deputy director, and the ten policemen were investigators or agents from that unit.”

Associated Press, reporting the evening of Tuesday, March 2, 2010.

Nov 18
Luis Jorge Garay. (Photo source and article text)

The Colombian newsweekly Semana published this interview Sunday, translated below, with outspoken Colombian economist Luis Jorge Garay. Working with the Fundación Método, Garay recently co-published a study about one of Colombia’s most severe challenges: the difficulty of eliminating organized crime’s influence over the state.

Colombia’s government has been repeatedly penetrated by criminal groups. Examples include Pablo Escobar’s domination of local politics in Medellín and his 1982 election (as an alternate legislator) to Colombia’s Congress; the Cali cartel’s donations to the 1994 presidential campaign of Ernesto Samper; and the ongoing “para-politics” scandal, in which several dozen legislators, governors, mayors and other officials have made common cause with drug-funded paramilitary groups.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who remains a very close parner of the U.S. government, has made gains against leftist guerrillas and cut a deal with paramilitary groups to demobilize their national structure. He has extradited several top paramilitary leaders, as well as most leaders of the North Valle cartel that dominated narcotrafficking in the late 1990s and the early 2000s.

The power of Colombian organized crime, however, remains great. Narcotraffickers are estimated to control about 10 million acres of land, including about half of the most fertile and sought-after land in the country. Recent scandals have revealed their infiltration at the highest levels of institutions like the presidential intelligence service (DAS) and the Medellín branch of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía). And Garay contends that, with the emergence of “new” paramilitary groups throughout the country, the mafia – and its penetration of the state – is evolving.

How is it evolving? Garay’s study performs a fascinating network analysis of narco-state ties. Though the study doesn’t discuss it in these terms, we can identify several characteristics of the “successful mafioso” in today’s Colombia.

  • Control of territory, using private militias.
  • Alliances forged with local politicians, usually cemented by support for campaigns and sharing in corruption.
  • Investments in legal enterprises, particularly productive projects like biofuels and palm oil, usually pooling resources with local economic elites.
  • Alliance with, or acquiescence of, local security forces – through ties of corruption rather than a common counter-insurgent cause.
  • A low profile, avoiding a protagonistic role in politics, and avoiding confrontation with the security forces.
  • Usually, benign treatment of the population, including financial support – with the exception of organized civil society, who are subject to threats and intimidation.

Though they are responsible for much of the illegal drugs coming from Colombia to the United States today, it has not been easy to convince policymakers, many focused on Colombia’s recent “success,” that this new generation of organized crime poses a threat, and that the United States must work more actively to limit its influence over a government that Washington continues to aid generously.

Here is the Semana interview with Luis Jorge Garay.

The economist and researcher Luis Jorge Garay coordinated for the Fundación Método a study about what, in boldly simple terms, could be labeled organized crime’s infiltration of the state. …

Gustavo Gómez, Semana: What does cooptation of the state consist of?

Luis Jorge Garay: It is the exercise through which a person or group, legal or illegal, taking advantage of its power of influence, intermediates before the state to favor its own interests. Within the law, a business association for example is coopting when, through the exercise of its power of influence, it gets the state to adopt sectoral policies that favor it, even against the collective interest. On the other hand, the case of illegality takes place with organized criminal groups, on occasion in alliance with legal sectors, who seek to reconfigure state institutions for their advantage, through the state itself.

GG: It is inevitable to think of Pablo Escobar and his election to Congress…

LJG: Since the time of [Escobar associate] Carlos Lehder the mafia understood that politics is an efficient means to infiltrate the state and society. Escobar managed to get a seat in Congress, but he ran up against the counterweight of Luis Carlos Galán [a Liberal Party leader assassinated in 1989], who got in the way of his political cooptation strategy.

GG: Did the mafia learn from that mistake when it penetrated Ernesto Samper’s campaign?

LJG: It learned much, so much that it realized that participating openly and visibly in politics implied risks of criminal and social exposure, and it decided to advance in the financing of parties and campaigns, and reached the point of trying to coopt the presidential agenda.

GG: Who was the counterweight then?

LJG: There was indignation in some sectors, but the determining reaction didn’t come from society, nor was there any definitive political leadership like in Galán’s case. The determining actor was foreign: the U.S. government.

GG: What advance did the paramilitaries make with regard to infiltration, compared to these previous experiences?

LJG: The scenario of an intensification of the fight against the guerrillas, to the point at which, with the active participation of legal sectors and with the intervention of illegal groups, illegal armies were established. They understood that a mafia without territorial dominion would not reach power, and that a mafia without a state has no reason to exist. These armies, to their very central nucleus, were penetrated by narcotrafficking in their attempt to coopt the state. This even took them to the Congress, so that it is possible to talk about the narco-para-political phenomenon.

GG: The objective as to re-found the state?

LJG: Their advance with regard to Lehder, Escobar and the Cali cartel was the consolidation of new, regionally based political movements, through alliances resulting from intimidation but, above all, of shared interests between criminals and politicians to use the legislature and advance in the coopted reconfiguration of the state.

GG: What role does the Supreme Court play in this panorama?

LJG: It is the counterweight power par excellence, first in the scenario of the conspiracy charges faced by the narco-para-politicians, and later, in proving that in participating in pacts to reconfigure the state, they abetted the use of force that cost the lives of 25,000 people. Recently the Court gave itself the power to judge them as the authors of crimes against humanity.

GG: It did so to avoid impunity?

LJG: The thing is, we are facing a paradoxical scenario in which the United States, which was the counterweight during the Samper period, now seeks to privilege its domestic interests by judging the paramilitary leaders for narcotrafficking, and subordinating to those interests much more serious crimes commmitted in Colombia. The risk of impunity for crimes against humanity has diminished with the Court’s current position which, in fact, is establishing new jurisprudence regarding extradition.

GG: Is the Court not exceeding its competence?

LJG: In the case of judging narco-para-politics, it acts absolutely within the law and there is no possibility of debating its right to make these judgments.

GG: The government insists that it strangled paramilitarism. Does this mean selling us the idea that we are living in a period of post-conflict?

LJG: We are not living that because, as I say, cooptation continues.

GG: Should we mistrust the successes of Democratic Security?

LJG: There are evident advances, like the weakening of the FARC, and effectiveness in the dismantling of the top narco-paramilitary leadership. But at the regional level, agreements with some sectors of the political class continue, and organized crime has regrouped as “emerging bands.” There are still armed groups that have created “a new social order” in some regions, to the advantage of some legal actors.

GG: Have the media been an effective counterweight?

LJG: We have analyzed the last 12 years and we find a permanent scrutiny of what has happened with respect to narco-paramilitarism. They informed, but they came up short in the task of building broad consensus in rejecting processes of this nature.

GG: What consequences might another reelection have?

LJG: If it happens, there will have to be a simultaneous, integral change to guarantee an adequate system of checks and balances under the constitution.

GG: What will the next cooptation scenario be?

LJG: If the currently germinating elements of the current stage of cooptation are not uprooted, there will be a transition to another with a similar basis but with more sophisticated processes and new actors seeking a change in the regime. THe actors are accidental, temporary and substitutable.

GG: Would you prefer to avoid optimism when you think of Colombia’s future?

LJG: I realistically view the deep problems we face in order to develop as a true democracy, but I’m optimistic that we, as a society, can react. Much is lacking, that is true, to arrive at true social justice and democracy.

Nov 09

On Friday the U.S. government finally released its estimate of how much coca was cultivated in Colombia in 2008. The result is the first reduction in coca-growing since 2002-2003, a significant drop from 167,000 hectares measured in 2007 to 119,000 hectares in 2008. (A hectare is equal to 2.47 acres.) This brings the U.S. government’s coca cultivation estimate to its lowest level since 2004. (The U.S. government has not yet released 2008 coca data for Peru and Bolivia.)

This matches a downward 2007-2008 trend – though not the number of hectares – that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime announced (PDF) back in June.

A reduction in coca cultivation is good news. But what caused it? Here is what Friday’s press release from the U.S. embassy to Colombia says:

According to analysts, the principal reasons for the decline were steadfast aerial and manual eradication pressure delivered against the primary Colombian growing areas, increased government presence and security forces in select growing regions and successful operation against drug trafficking organizations. Violence between trafficking groups and economic disruptions that affect farmers’ planting decisions were also a factor.

Certainly, eradication was a key variable. But eradication has changed since 2006, which was the peak year for the U.S.-funded aerial herbicide fumigation program. Fumigation was a centerpiece of Plan Colombia, but groups like ours have long maintained that it was counterproductive and ineffective. And the coca-cultivation statistics appeared to agree.

The fumigation program has declined since 2006. By 2008, the United States was supporting the spraying of 38,000 fewer hectares in Colombia.

Instead, the emphasis has gone to manual eradication. Teams of eradicators, protected by the security forces, pull farmers’ coca plants out of the ground. This is dangerous to the eradicators, but appears to be more effective than sending planes to spray overhead without bothering to establish any state presence on the ground. 53,000 more hectares were manually eradicated in 2008 than in 2006.

The statistics are showing manual eradication to be more effective than fumigation at reducing coca. However, forced manual eradication is hardly a panacea. Most Colombian coca growers are small farm families in some of the poorest parts of the country. If their crops are manually eradicated and they are left with no economic options – no government presence, no farm-to-market roads, no help making the transition to a legal economy, not even basic food security assistance – they are more likely to attempt coca growing again, and to view the Colombian state as an adversary. Manual eradication must be carefully calibrated with a strategy to bring coca farmers, some of Colombia’s poorest and most marginalized citizens, out of illegality.

There are strong reasons to worry that the gains measured in 2008 aren’t permanent. We will not know for sure, however, until at least June 2010, when the UNODC will likely release its 2009 coca estimates.

  • Manual eradication in 2009 has not kept pace with 2008. While 95,731 hectares were eradicated manually in 2008, by late September of this year Colombia’s police had eradicated 40,000: less than half as much, three-quarters of the way through the year. Conversations with U.S. officials over the course of 2009 indicate that fumigation has also dropped further this year.
  • Economic conditions may be inspiring more rural farmers to turn to coca. This is particularly the case in coca-growing zones, especially Putumayo and Nariño departments, that were hit hard by the collapse of several large pyramid schemes in November of last year – too late to be registered in the 2008 coca data. Anecdotal evidence from these zones indicates that of the tens of thousands of families who saw their savings wiped out with the demise of DMG and other schemes, a portion turned back to the coca economy in 2009.
  • Armed groups – both the FARC and “new” paramilitary groups – have been much more active in several coca-growing zones, most notably the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia (several paramilitary groups), southern Córdoba (paramilitary), Putumayo (FARC), Meta (FARC and paramilitary) and Nariño and Cauca (virtually all armed groups). This reactivation could bring an uptick in 2009 coca cultivation in some of these areas.

The progress of 2008 is fragile. It owes much to a forced manual eradication model that, though more effective than fumigation, is not a substitute for governing and creating economic opportunity in rural zones. With some signs pointing to disappointment in 2009, there is no reason to believe that a solution has been found. The strategy has to keep changing.

Sep 17

Colombia has demobilized or arrested many of the country’s top narcotraffickers in recent years. The North Valle Cartel, which dominated the cocaine trade in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is almost fully dismantled.

Yet the amount of cocaine being produced in Colombia has barely changed. There are still criminal organizations and armed groups producing massive quantities of the drug and shipping it out of the country. But with the extraditions of top paramilitary and cartel figures in recent years, there are a lot of new faces. Some of those faces may in fact be Mexican.

In its edition published today, the Colombian newsweekly Cambio attempts to identify “the new drug cartels” dominating the trade. The image reproduced below is available as a much higher-quality PDF on their website. This rundown may be oversimplified and may contain inaccuracies because the fluid nature of the drug underground is difficult to pin down. Still, it is the most helpful guide to the “new narcos” that we have seen this year.

Click here or on the map to download the graphic as a PDF. Here is an English translation of its text.

  • Pale green in western Córdoba and western Antioquia: Los Urabaños”
    Chief: Juan de Dios Úsuga [pictured in upper left], “Giovanni,” successor of Daniel Rendón, “don Mario” [who was captured by Colombian police in April].
    Members: Between 1,000 and 1,500 men.
    Zone of influence: Urabá.
    Mexican partners: “Los Zetas” [also known as the Gulf Cartel or "La Compañía].
    Routes: Gulf of Urabá-Mexico.
    Transport: Riverine and maritime.
  • Mint green in the rest of Córdoba and Antioquia: “Los Paisas”
    Chief: Ángel de Jesús Pacheco, “Sebastián,” successor of Diego Murillo, “Don Berna” [an AUC leader extradited to the United States in May 2008]. In a dispute with “Beto” and “Valenciano.”
    Members: Between 400 and 800 men.
    Zone of influence: Córdoba and Antioquia.
    Mexican partners: The Beltrán Leyva brothers [a faction of the Sinaloa cartel], allies of “Los Zetas.”
    Routes: Gulf of Morrosquillo [coast of Sucre]-Mexico.
    Transport: Aerial and maritime.
  • Orange in Chocó: “Renacer” [Rebirth]
    Chief: “Raúl.”
    Members: Between 80 and 150 men.
    Zone of influence: Chocó.
    Mexican partners: Not known.
    Routes: Pacific-Mexico.
    Transport: Maritime.
  • Orange in Valle del Cauca: “Los Machos”
    Chief: “don H,” successor of the Calima Bloc [of the AUC].
    Members: Between 50 and 100 men.
    Zone of influence: Valle del Cauca.
    Mexican partners: Not known.
    Routes: Pacific-Mexico.
    Transport: Maritime.
  • Orange in Nariño: “Nueva Generación” [New Generation]
    Chief: “El Tigre”
    Members: Between 100 and 200 men.
    Zone of influence: Nariño.
    Mexican partners: Not known.
    Routes: Pacific-Mexico.
    Transport: Overland and maritime.
  • Orange in Cauca: “Los Rastrojos” [Literally, what is left behind in a cane field after harvest]
    Chiefs: Luis Enrique [pictured in bottom center] and Javier Calle Serna, successors of [top North Valle Cartel figure] Wílber Varela, “Jabón.”
    Members: Between 300 and 500 men.
    Zones of influence: Nariño, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Chocó, Norte de Santander, southern Bolívar.
    Mexican partners: Nacho Coronel, Vicente Carrillo and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán [Sinaloa cartel].
    Routes: Colombia-Panama, and ports on the Pacific.
    Transport: Riverine and maritime.
  • Light blue in Meta, Guaviare, Guainía, Vichada and Arauca: “Ejército Revolucionario Popular Antiterrorista Colombiano (ERPAC)” [Colombian Popular Antiterrorist Revolutionary Army]
    Chiefs: Pedro Oliveiro, “Cuchillo” ["Knife," photo in lower right], and Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, AUC leaders who did not demobilize.
    Members: Between 700 and 1,000 men.
    Zones of influence: Meta, Guaviare, Vichada, Guainía and Arauca.
    Mexican partners: Nacho Coronel, Vicente Carrillo and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán [Sinaloa cartel].
    Route: Colombia-Venezuela-Dominican Republic-Mexico.
    Transport: Overland and aerial.
  • Dark blue in the Magdalena Medio region: “Magdalena Medio”
    Chief: Ovidio Isaza, “Roque,” successor of Ramón Isaza [former AUC bloc leader] and Carlos Mario Jiménez, “Macaco” [AUC leader extradited to the United States in May 2008].
    Zone of influence: Madgalena Medio.
    Mexican partners: Not known.
    Route: Colombia-Venezuela-Caribbean islands-Mexico.
    Transport: Overland and aerial.
  • Dark green in Putumayo: FARC 48th Front
    Zone of influence: Putumayo.
    Members: Between 400 and 500 men.
    Mexican partner: Tijuana cartel.
    Route: Orito and San Miguel, Putumayo – Ecuador – Mexico.
    Transport: Overland and maritime.
  • Red silhouettes in Cauca and Valle del Cauca: FARC 30th Front
    Zone of influence: Valle del Cauca and Cauca.
    Members: Between 100 and 200 men.
    Mexican partner: Tijuana cartel.
    Route: Buenaventura-Ecuador-Mexico.
    Transport: Overland and maritime.
  • Dark green silhouette in Chocó: FARC 57th Front
    Zone of influence: Chocó.
    Members: Between 200 and 300 men.
    Mexican partners: Not known.
    Route: Dari̩n [Panama-Colombia border zone] РPanama РMexico.
    Transport: Riverine and maritime.
  • Light green silhouette in Meta: FARC 44th and 27th Fronts
    Zone of influence: Meta.
    Members: Between 200 and 300 men.
    Mexican partner: Tijuana cartel.
    Route: Colombia-Venezuela-Mexico.
    Transport: Riverine, overland, aerial and maritime.
  • Black silhouette in Guainía: FARC 16th Front
    Zone of influence: Guainía.
    Members: Between 50 and 100.
    Mexican partners: Tijuana and Federal District cartels.
    Routes: Cumaribo, Vichada-Ecuador-Mexico and Venezuela-Mexico.
    Transport: Overland and maritime.
Jul 24

The House has passed the 2010 foreign assistance budget bill, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has passed its version.

Where aid to Colombia is concerned, neither house made fundamental changes to the Obama administration’s request.

Here are the numbers as they stand right now. For far more detail, including specific programs – and much improved legibility – download this Excel file (36KB).

Please note that this is not all aid to Colombia. Another $100-150 million in military and police aid will go through the Defense budget counternarcotics account (perhaps more, when we include money spent to do construction at the bases that U.S. personnel will be using). And another $5-20 million in economic and social aid may come through USAID’s Transition Initiatives account, the Defense Department’s “Section 1207″ transfer authority, and the State Department’s regional fund for Migration and Refugee Assistance.

Colombia 2009 Authorized Amount % of total 2010 Administration Request % of total 2010 Request minus 2009 2010 Passed by House % of total House minus 2009 House minus 2010 Request 2009 Senate Appropriations Committee % of total Senate minus 2009 Senate minus 2010 Request Senate minus House
Military and Police Aid 305,050,000 56.0% 290,606,000 56.6% -14,444,000 277,840,000 53.4% -27,210,000 -12,766,000 270,995,000 52.9% -34,055,000 -19,611,000 -6,845,000
Economic and Social Aid 240,000,000 44.0% 222,394,000 43.4% -14,340,000 242,160,000 46.6% 2,160,000 19,766,000 241,500,000 47.1% 1,500,000 19,106,000 -660,000
Total Aid Specified for Colombia in the
Foreign Operations Appropriation
545,050,000 513,000,000 -28,784,000 520,000,000 -25,050,000 7,000,000 512,495,000 -32,555,000 -505,000 -7,505,000

Sources used for this table and the Excel file are online and publicly available:

Jul 10

Hi from Sincelejo, the capital of the department of Sucre, Colombia. We’ve had several tremendous days of interviews and site visits in the Montes de María region, which was hit hard by the conflict in the early 2000s and which is now increasingly a focus for U.S.-supported “integrated action” programs. Today we go to Montería, Córdoba, and then back to Washington.

Here’s a 100-second video I recorded from the back of a pickup truck on the road between Macayepo and Chinulito, both of them sites of massacres in 2000, and both of them experiencing a partial return of displaced people.

Some of you may recognize Nancy Sánchez of the Colombian human rights group MINGA (winner of the Institute for Policy Studies’ 2003 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award). It may appear that I have Nancy in an affectionate embrace; actually, I’m clinging desperately with my free hand to the roof of the truck in order to avoid flying out. The road is in terrible condition.

On the road between Macayepo and Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

On the road between Macayepo and Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Jun 23

Last Friday the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its latest estimates of coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, the three countries that produce nearly all of the world’s cocaine. The UN agency’s findings were summarized in a single headline: coca cultivation declined sharply in Colombia in 2008, while it rose in Bolivia and Peru.

The UN agency found an 18 percent drop in Colombian coca-bush cultivation from 2007 to 2008, which it attributed to “the manual eradication of 96,115 hectares of coca bush (an increase of 44 per cent compared to the area eradicated manually in 2007) and the spraying of 133,496 hectares of coca bush in 2008.”

While the 2008 drop in Colombia is encouraging, however, it is not as remarkable as it sounds. It represents a return to the same levels of coca cultivation that the UN agency detected in 2003-2006, the years after Plan Colombia brought an increase in eradication, especially in the department of Putumayo, and the FARC guerrillas lost the free rein they enjoyed over five municipalities in western Meta and northern Caquetá departments during a failed 1998-2002 peace process.

This time last year, the UN was expressing “shock” about a huge increase [PDF] in Colombian coca-growing for 2007, a major departure from the steady 2003-2006 levels. This finding caused an outcry from the Colombian government and was not reflected in the U.S. government’s very different coca-growing estimates, which found only a tiny increase in 2007.

That 2007 increase has been reversed, and Colombian coca-growing has returned to what, when one removes the seemingly anomalous 2007 estimate, has been a stable level of coca cultivation. In five of the last six years, the UN has found Colombian coca-growing to be consistently within a narrow band between 78,000 and 86,000 hectares. The 2008 figure, 81,000 hectares, fits comfortably within that band.

This steady result comes despite a constant increase in the Colombian government’s coca eradication efforts. With U.S. aid, the Colombian government has increased by 58 percent the number of hectares of coca eradicated since 2003, only to achieve the same results as it did in that year.

Since 2006, interestingly, it has done so while reducing the aerial herbicide fumigation program, instead sharply increasing on-the-ground manual eradication, a method that was barely in use five years ago. Teams of manual eradicators ripped 95,731 hectares of coca out of the ground in 2008.

Despite this, the coca-growing result is steady, with the exception of 2007. This is because coca-growers are not deterred when eradication is not coupled with assistance or a real state presence: they simply grow again elsewhere. The UNODC’s report confirms this: 75 percent of the coca plots the agency detected in 2008 were not planted with coca in 2007. And 59 percent of them had no coca in any of the UNODC’s earlier surveys.

Why was 2007 an outlier year in the UN’s estimates? The areas that the UN found coca-growing increasing most robustly in 2007 were in Colombia’s Pacific coastal region (Nariño, Cauca) and paramilitary-heavy areas in the north (Antioquia, Bolívar, Norte de Santander). With the exception of Antioquia, these areas of sharpest 2007 growth did not experience significant decreases in 2008. In fact, cultivation is now so concentrated along Colombia’s Pacific coast that this increasingly violent region can now be considered the country’s coca heartland.

Instead, last year’s reduction occurred mainly in parts of the country that saw increased manual eradication: Putumayo, Antioquia, and the area in and around the “La Macarena Consolidation Zone” in Meta, Caquetá and Guaviare.

Though we have no statistical evidence yet to back up this prediction, CIP is concerned by reports that coca cultivation is increasing dramatically this year in Putumayo and Nariño departments, in southwestern Colombia. The reason is the late 2008 collapse of several pyramid schemes, including the notorious DMG corporation, which wiped out the assets of a large portion of the population in these departments’ traditional coca-growing zones. As a source of easy money, these schemes served as a sort of “alternative development program” in several of southern Colombia’s longtime coca boomtowns. Their sudden disappearance, which brought a financial meltdown in many localities, appears to be spurring a massive replanting, according to anecdotal reports that we have received from Putumayo and Nariño.

Here are a few other noteworthy findings from the UNODC report, with explanatory text from the report itself:

  • The agency believes that Colombian cocaine production fell even more sharply than coca-growing in 2008, from 600 to 430 tons. “[A]s a result of government pressure, coca fields are becoming more dispersed and smaller and, therefore, harder to tend, resulting in lower yields. The farm-gate value of coca leaf in Colombia is falling, making it less attractive for farmers. Indeed, 20,000 less households grew coca in 2008 compared with 2007 (a decrease of 26%).”

  • The UNODC’s estimate of the average farm-gate price of coca paste – the form in which most growers sell coca in Colombia – changed very little. It rose from US$943 per kilo in 2007 to US$968 per kilo in 2008.

  • Families that grow coca in Colombia do not make much money. The UNODC report cites a survey of coca growers in two regions of the country, in which respondents are asked about their economic reality. It estimates that the growers’ net income – after taking out all the costs of producing coca – was US$3,893 per year in one region and US$4,619 per year in the other. These income levels – between $300 and $400 per month – are above the poverty line, and by all estimates the majority of rural Colombians live below that line. However, the UNODC figure shows that (a) growers get a very tiny piece of the cocaine trade’s massive profits, and (b) the income they receive is so low that other, legal crops could realistically compete with coca.

  • As noted in the charts above, UNODC found small increases in coca-growing and cocaine production in both Peru and Bolivia.
    • Peru: “[I]t can be affirmed that the growth registered in both basins [Upper Huallaga and Apurímac-Ene] may have been facilitated by violence, which news media attribute to subversive [Shining Path] remnants. It would appear that in the past few years, they have become the armed wing of narcotrafficking gangs.”
    • Bolivia: “The area of greatest growth continues to be la Asunta, in the Yungas of La Paz, where neither erradication nor alternative development is carried out. … The government of Bolivia deserves praise for a significant increase in drug interdiction.”
May 07

The Obama administration’s State Department has released a “Summary and Highlights” document for its 2010 foreign assistance request, which offers some significant clues about where future aid is headed.

The document tells us how the Obama administration is asking Congress to allocate aid money to Colombia across four key programs:

  • International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE). This program is the largest source of aid to Colombia, and combines both military/police and economic/social aid. It is administered by the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement Affairs. For the past several years, the Bush Administration used the term “Andean Counter-Drug Initiative (ACI)” as a separate category for aid to Colombia and its neighbors through INCLE. This account pays mainly for the aerial herbicide fumigation program, drug interdiction programs, maintenance of Colombian police and military aircraft, and several rule-of-law programs.

    The Obama administration would cut this program deeply, by about $50 million. Unfortunately, the “Summary and Highlights” document does not break down how much of the INCLE outlay for Colombia is military/police aid, and how much is economic/social aid. In 2009, however, we know that $40 million of the INCLE total is non-military, as required by Congress. The 2008 figure was similar. If we assume the 2010 outlay will also be $40 million non-military, then INCLE would appear as follows, in thousands of U.S. dollars:

    International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) 2008 2009 2010
    Military and Police Aid (est.) 249,005 247,500 197,760
    Economic and Social Aid (est.) 40,000 40,000 40,000
    Total INCLE 289,005 287,500 237,760
  • Foreign Military Financing (FMF). This is the main non-drug military and police aid program in the foreign aid budget. It has been used in the past to support programs like oil pipeline protection, intelligence equipment, and support for military offensives. The Democratic-majority Congress cut this account significantly since 2007. The Obama administration would restore it slightly, however, adding about $13.6 million over 2009 levels. In thousands of U.S. dollars:
    Foreign Military Financing (FMF)
    2008 2009 2010
    Military and Police Aid 52,570 53,000 66,590
  • International Military Education and Training (IMET). The main non-drug military training program in the foreign aid budget. The Obama administration would increase this relatively small program. In thousands of U.S. dollars:
    International Military Education and Training (IMET) 2008 2009 2010
    Military and Police Aid 1,421 1,400 1,695
  • Economic Support Funds (ESF). The source of most economic and social assistance to Colombia, ESF pays for alternative development programs, assistance to displaced communities, judicial reform programs, demobilization and reintegration, and human rights programs, among others. The Obama administration would increase it slightly. In thousands of U.S. dollars:
    Economic Support Funds (ESF) 2008 2009 2010
    Economic and Social Aid 194,412 196,500 200,660

Add the figures up for these four programs, and the trend looks like this, in thousands of U.S. dollars:

2008 2009 2010
Military and Police Aid (est.) 305,004 303,909 268,055
Economic and Social Aid (est.) 234,412 236,500 240,660
Total, 4 programs
539,416 540,409 508,715

From this preliminary information, we can conclude the following:

  • The Obama administration plans to provide Colombia with less aid, even though its worldwide 2010 aid request is increasing over 2008 and 2009 levels. For these four programs, the aid amount would be reduced about $31.6 million from 2009 to 2010, or nearly 6 percent.
  • Aid cuts would come from military/police aid programs, leading to greater parity between military and economic assistance. The cuts would be most likely to come from aerial fumigation and aviation maintenance programs, while non-drug military aid might actually increase. For these four programs, we estimate the military/police share of the request at only about 53 percent. There is more military aid in the Defense budget, however, so this is still a decidedly majority-military aid package.
  • Mexico is quickly eclipsing Colombia as an aid destination. Congress is currently considering a supplemental appropriation for 2009 that, in the House version (PDF), would increase military and police aid to Mexico by a whopping $470 million. Compare that amount – which is just additional aid to Mexico for this year – to the $268 million in military/police aid in the Obama administration’s request for Colombia. It is possible that Colombia could soon cease to be the hemisphere’s number-one recipient of military-police aid, for the first time since it surged ahead of El Salvador at the beginning of the 1990s.

Significant amounts of aid go through programs not listed here, such as the Defense budget ($112 million in military/police aid in 2007), Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism, Demining and Related Programs (NADR, $4.1 million in 2008), and USAID “Transition Initiatives” programs ($2 million in 2008). To see the entire aid picture, incorporating these programs – not updated to reflect the numbers in this post – visit the Colombia page of our “Just the Facts” database.

May 04

Here is an interview recorded April 24 with Rodrigo Botero, the director for the Amazon and Orinoco regions at Colombia’s National Parks Service.

Colombia’s government, with U.S. support, is trying to implement a “consolidation” strategy to establish state presence and services in the vast areas of the country that have historically been completely ungoverned. One of the priority zones, and one which has received significant U.S. investment, are the municipalities in and around the La Macarena National Park.

A FARC stronghold for decades, the La Macarena park was situated completely within the demilitarized zone ceded to the guerrillas during the failed 1998-2002 peace process. During the 2000s, this zone of primary forest saw a sharp increase in coca cultivation, as farmers moved into the zone, with guerrilla encouragement, to grow the crop. Since 2006, the Colombian and U.S. governments have responded by sending manual eradicators, then fumigation aircraft, into the park.

Mr. Botero is wrestling with one of the thorniest questions that the state-building effort faces: what to in areas where people simply shouldn’t be living? In zones that, because they are parkland, wilderness, or simply too far from the rest of the population, cannot expect to be properly served by the government?

His solution has been an ambitious program to move people out of the park with promises of housing, productive projects and food-security assistance in exchange for voluntary eradication of coca. His efforts – by far the largest voluntary eradication project in the country – have so far brought the permanent disappearance of 2,000 hectares of coca from in and around the park.

Though he is an ecologist by training, Mr. Botero and his team have had to learn a lot very quickly about rural development, housing construction, community organizing and political negotiation. Though the Park Service is purportedly part of an inter-agency effort to bring the Colombian state into the area surrounding La Macarena, it – and the communities with which it is working – have seen little assistance or accompaniment from most other government agencies.

Here are 5 minutes of footage of a conversation with Mr. Botero, with English subtitles. He describes the model that he has constructed, together with the leaders of several communities outside the park.

Interview with Rodrigo Botero from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

(Yes, by the way, I’m aware my Spanish accent is atrocious.)

Apr 15

Colombian police this morning captured Daniel Rendón, alias “Don Mario,” one of Colombia’s top narcotraffickers and highest-profile alleged sponsors of “new” paramilitary groups. (See our brief profile of Don Mario here.) The arrest occurred in Necoclí, a town in the northwestern Colombian region of Urabá that has been under heavy paramilitary influence for a decade.

Links to initial coverage: BBC, AFP, AP, El Tiempo, El Espectador, Semana.

Apr 14

Here are our most up-to-date statistics on the War on Drugs in Colombia, looking at the past decade’s experience from several different angles. Click on each graphic to see a bigger version.

Aid to Colombia Since 2000:

  • Currently, roughly two-thirds of military and police aid is used for counter-narcotics purposes.
  • At least 53,888 military and police personnel trained (2000-2006).
  • Over 90 helicopters granted.
  • Over 20 spray planes granted.
  • 1,120,706 hectares (2,767,580 acres) fumigated aerially with herbicides.
  • 246,515 hectares (609,152 acres) manually eradicated (2004-2008).

The Counter-Drug Results:

  • Coca cultivation, in Colombia and the Andes, is little changed.

U.S. estimate of coca cultivation:

UNODC estimate of coca cultivation:

Eradication progress in one department is canceled out by increased coca-growing in other departments.

  • Cocaine production, in Colombia and the Andes, is little changed.

U.S. estimate of cocaine production:

UNODC estimate of cocaine production:

  • The estimated farm-gate price of coca base or coca paste has not increased.

UNODC estimate of coca paste/base prices:

  • The estimated price of cocaine sold within Colombia has not increased significantly.

Note: the perceived increase in 2007 owes in part to the U.S. dollar’s sharp devaluation against the Colombian peso in that year.

  • The estimated price of cocaine sold on the streets of the United States has not increased significantly. According to the U.S. government, reports of a price increase in 2007-2008 are not due to any reduction in Andean cocaine supplies. They have been caused by disruption of Mexican transshipment routes.

Sources: U.S. government data compiled by the Washington Office on Latin America and presented by the DEA . The U.S. government changed measurement methodology – and the contractor hired to measure cocaine prices – after 2003Q2.

According to the U.S. Justice Department’s December 2008 National Drug Threat Assessment:

The estimated amount of cocaine that departed South America toward the United States in 2007 was only slightly higher than the revised 2006 estimate. … Intelligence and law enforcement reporting indicates that the decrease [in U.S. cocaine availability] likely is the result of several simultaneous factors that obstructed the flow of cocaine from South America through Mexico to U.S. drug markets. The likely factors include several exceptionally large cocaine seizures made while the drug was in transit toward the United States, counterdrug efforts by the Mexican Government, U.S. law enforcement operations along the Southwest Border, a high level of intercartel violence in Mexico, and expanding cocaine markets in Europe and South America.

All of these metrics indicate clear failure, despite heavy U.S. and Colombian investment – in money and lives – in a decades-long effort to reduce cocaine supplies coming from Colombia. The argument in favor of a new drug policy could hardly be stronger.

Feb 25

Five months into Fiscal Year 2009 (which began October 1), the U.S. Congress has almost completed the 2009 federal budget. The House and Senate have developed an “omnibus” spending bill combining ten sections of the budget, which the House is expected to vote on today.

One of those ten sections funds foreign assistance for the rest of the world. The 2009 State Department and Foreign Operations bill provides Colombia with US$547.05 million in aid for 2009. Of that total, 55.8 percent (US$305.05 million) would go to Colombia’s armed forces and police.

An additional amount of military and police aid goes separately, through accounts in the Defense Department’s budget. In 2007, the Defense budget added an additional US$114.26 million in military and police aid. If that amount is similar in 2009, then total aid to Colombia this year will add up to US$666.31 million. Of that total, 62.9 percent (US$419.31 million) will be military and police aid.

The 2009 aid bill’s Colombia outlay almost exactly resembles the amounts and military-economic splits that Congress provided to Colombia for 2008. The Bush administration, which heavily favored military aid to Colombia, had sought to undo the Democratic Congress’s far less military 2008 aid package for Colombia; in February 2008 it requested a 2009 aid package for Colombia that was 72.9 percent military and police aid (76.9 percent when Defense-budget aid is added). Congress denied this request and maintained 2008 aid levels.

Here are the details, from the House-Senate Conference Committee’s “Joint Explanatory Statement” (PDF).

Military and Police Aid:
(Thousands of dollars)

Aid program 2008 2009 – Bush administration request 2009 – H.R. 1105
Andean Counterdrug Programs 247,098 329,557 242,500
Foreign Military Financing (FMF) 55,050 66,390 53,000
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) 0 19,247 5,000
Nonproliferation, Anti-terrorism, Demining and Related (NADR) 3,715 3,150 3,150
International Military Education and Training (IMET) 1,428 1,400 1,400
Subtotal: Foreign Operations programs 307,291 419,744 305,050
Defense-Budget programs (estimate based on 2007) 114,264 114,264 114,264
Total 421,555 534,008 419,314

Economic and Social Aid:
(Thousands of dollars)

Aid program 2008 2009 – Bush administration request 2009 – H.R. 1105
Economic Support Fund (ESF) 194,412 142,366 200,000
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) 39,427 11,340 40,000
USAID Transition Initiatives (2009 est.) 2,000 2,000 2,000
Subtotal: Foreign Operations programs 235,839 155,706 242,000
Defense-Budget programs (2009 est.) 5,000 5,000 5,000
Total 240,839 160,706 247,000

Overall Total:
(Thousands of dollars)

2008 2009 – Bush administration request 2009 – H.R. 1105
Economic Support Fund (ESF) 194,412 142,366 200,000
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) 39,427 11,340 40,000
USAID Transition Initiatives (2009 est.) 2,000 2,000 2,000
Foreign Operations programs 543,130 575,450 547,050
Defense-Budget programs (2009 est.) 119,264 119,264 119,264
Total 662,394 694,714 666,314

The House-Senate Conference Committee’s statement [PDF] provides this additional detail about economic aid to Colombia, indicating how it recommends that the 2009 aid money be distributed.

Feb 20

The last year and a half has seen the extradition of fifteen of Colombia’s top paramilitary leaders to the United States. It has also witnessed the arrest, killing or extradition of nearly every major head of the North Valle cartel, which for most of the 2000s was Colombia’s principal drug-trafficking organization.

Yet the amount of cocaine being produced in Colombia has barely changed. Violence in key production areas and trafficking corridors is as severe as ever.

Clearly, FARC and increasingly ELN fronts are involved in this trafficking and violence. But given the intensity of the Colombian military’s offensive against them, there is little reason to believe that the guerrillas’ market share is increasing.

This means that despite recent attacks, Colombia’s drug mafia is alive and well. And as before, it seems to overlap strongly with paramilitarism – or what are now known as “emerging criminal groups.”

According to Colombia’s “New Rainbow” think-tank, which has performed extensive research on Colombia’s new paramilitary generation, there are more than 100 new militias, many of whose members and leaders have past relations with old paramilitary groups. They use about 21 different names, are active in 246 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties), and have a combined membership estimated at about 10,000. They are cultivating ties with regional economic and political leaders. They often work with the guerrillas on the drug business. They also threaten and kill human-rights defenders, labor leaders, indigenous and afro-Colombian leaders, and independent journalists.

Today’s narco-paramilitaries, or “emerging criminal groups,” or new drug mafia – whatever one wishes to call them – have no visible heads, nobody playing the role that Carlos Castaño filled for the AUC paramilitary coalition a decade ago. However, when one asks who is “in charge” and paying these new militias, some names do come up frequently. Here, thanks to research help from CIP Intern Stacy Ulmer, are four of them.

Daniel Rendón, alias “Don Mario”

  • The brother of Freddy Rendón, alias “El Alemán,” the former head of the Elmer Cárdenas Bloc of the AUC active in the northwestern region of Urabá, who is now imprisoned in Colombia.
  • Participated in the “Justice and Peace” process, but escaped and is officially a fugitive.
  • His organization is present in Antioquia (including Medellín) northward into Córdoba and the Urabá region and Chocó, as well as Meta department to the south.
  • After the May 2008 extradition of paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo (”Don Berna”), who dominated organized crime in Medellín, “Don Mario” has violently sought to fill the vacuum. His violent efforts to assert control have contributed to a one-third rise in murders in Medellín from 2007 to 2008.
  • In October, circulated pamphlets across northern Colombia announcing the formation of a new group called the “Colombian Gaitanist Auto-defense Forces.”
  • Guillermo Valencia Cossio, Medellín’s chief prosecutor and the brother of Interior Minister Fabio Valencia Cossio, was arrested in September 2008 on charges of colluding with “Don Mario.”
  • In mid-2008, Colombia’s police said that one-eighth of smuggled weapons they had interdicted were destined for his organization.
  • “Don Mario” has offered a reward of 2 million pesos (almost US$1,000) to anyone who kills a police officer in Antioquia and Córdoba.

Daniel “El Loco” Barrera

  • A narcotrafficker who first got into the business in Guaviare department, 200 miles southeast of Bogotá, in the early 1980s.
  • He did narco business with the FARC throughout the 1990s. In the early 2000s, he served as a link for narcotrafficking cooperation between the FARC and the paramilitaries.
  • His area of influence is principally Colombia’s eastern plains: Meta, Casanare, eastern Cundinamarca, Guaviare, and Vichada. He is heavily involved in the transshipment of cocaine through Venezuela. He has some influence in Putumayo as well.
  • Semana magazine reported in 2007: “Barrera’s main security force is made up of an army of hitmen with very good contacts with the authorities, who are in charge of making sure that nothing happens to him, warning him about operations being planned against him by national and foreign authorities, and in some cases, even carrying out revenge killings. When Barrera has to go to Bogotá or Villavicencia, he does so in official vehicles. Just for these kinds of ’services,’ Barrera sends 300 million pesos per month (roughly US$150,000) to the capital.”
  • In November, President Álvaro Uribe questioned the army’s lack of progress against Barrera in Meta department. “I ask is the army capable of capturing [him] or if it is protecting him.”

Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, “Cuchillo”

  • A member of narco and paramilitary organizations since the 1980s, he was a top lieutenant of Miguel Arroyave, head of the AUC’s Centauros Bloc, which dominated the eastern plains and even had a presence in Bogotá. “Cuchillo” (the name means “knife,” apparently the way he prefers to kill victims) participated in the plot that killed Arroyave in September 2004.
  • His “Heroes of Guaviare” front participated in a demobilization ceremony in April 2006, but he soon abandoned the process and became a fugitive.
  • His area of operations overlaps much of “Loco” Barrera’s. It includes Meta, Guaviare and Vichada.
  • The current governor of Guaviare department, Óscar de Jesús López, is under investigation for including Cuchillo as a business partner in a mining company in 2006.

“Oficina de Envigado”

  • Since the era of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel, this name refers to the organized-crime structure that has controlled most of the narco business in Medellín and its environs. Envigado is a suburb to the south of Medellín.
  • It was controlled by paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo (”Don Berna”) until his May 2008 extradition. Since then, the “Oficina” has been in some disarray, with greatly increased infighting, but it remains powerful.
  • Infighting for control of the “Oficina,” which has also involved the “Don Mario” organization, has increased violence rates in Medellín, leading Colombian National Police Chief Gen. Oscar Naranjo to spend a week there at the end of January.
  • Aliases of current leaders include “Nito,” “Yiyo,” “Beto,” “Douglas,” “Valenciano,” and “Gancho.” Other demobilized members of Don Berna’s former paramilitary organization, particularly two nicknamed “Rogelio” and “Danielito,” are also believed to be part of the leadership.
  • The “Oficina” maintains a militia called the “Paisas.” It operates in Antioquia department and along major drug-trafficking corridors in the Pacific and Atlantic coastal regions.
Jan 28

Here is an English translation of a recording of a conversation with former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, which the Colombian newsmagazine Semana revealed back in September. In this excerpt, Mancuso – extradited to the United States last May, where he faces charges of shipping large quantities of cocaine – calmly discusses the economics of the cocaine business, as he experienced it.

The individual being interviewed here is a mass murderer and narcotrafficker with a great interest in improving his own image. Nonetheless, Mancuso’s account of how the drug trade works does not vary significantly from what most Colombian drug-policy experts would tell you.

One detail that Mancuso adds – whether true or not – is that the guerrillas and the paramilitaries are really just middlemen making about US$500 per kilogram of cocaine. The big money, he contends, is with narcotraffickers who are not armed-group members, who receive much assistance from Colombia’s legitimate business community as they seek to repatriate drug profits equivalent to about 5 percent of Colombia’s GDP.

If you understand Spanish, visit the page on the Semana website where a recording of Mancuso’s words accompanies an animated graphic illustrating what he’s talking about.

How many hectares [of coca] are cultivated in Colombia?

Salvatore Mancuso: There are data that the United Nations SIMCI project gives, that is a satellite monitoring system over the regions where coca crops are grown. Normally those zones are national parks and others are fringe zones very close to national parks, but in general they are all tropical rainforest zones.

To try to carry out a complete satellite monitoring of an area where a tropical rainforest exists is a technical impossibility because of these regions’ cloudiness. That’s why it is very understandable when the SIMCI tells one that in Córdoba [the northwestern Colombian department, or province, that Mancuso once dominated] there are 1,200 or 1,500 hectares that can be verified on the Internet. This has no basis in reality.

In Córdoba there are between 15,000 and 18,000 hectares of coca, of which we controlled half and the guerrillas half. In Córdoba department we controlled some 7,000 or 8,000 hectares that produced 3,500 to 4,000 kilograms (3.5-4 tons) of coca [cocaine] per month. Why? Because a hectare of coca produces on average half a kilogram per hectare per month. There are 4 harvests per year, every three months.

This average applies to crops in the rest of the country?

SM: It is a national-level average. Carrying out a study of the crops that were both in Córdoba and in Catatumbo [another region Mancuso dominated, in Norte de Santander department near Venezuela], and in part of southern Bolívar [department], this study was made and we dug up this statistical fact.

What does it mean? That the Colombian government’s calculations that only 80,000 to 90,000 hectares of coca exist in Colombia are false. In Colombia there exist approximately 160,000 hectares of coca and they will keep existing for our whole lives as long as eradication programs are done in scattered focal points in different regions.

There are 160,000 hectares that produce 80,000 kilograms per month, which equals 1,000 tons per year, which is worth US$7 billion. Where does that statistic come from? The campesino sells it to whoever transforms it [into cocaine] (in general, guerrilla or paramilitary commanders) who then sells it to narcotraffickers. They buy coca base for $2.5-3.0 million pesos [more than US$1,000], transform it, paying $400,000-450,000 pesos [nearly US$200] for a laboratory to do the transformation, and sell it to narcotraffickers for $4.5 million pesos [about US$1,800]. … From every kilo they [the armed group] are getting mroe or less another million pesos [just under US$500] or maybe a little more due to corruption.

These $4.5 million pesos include transformation?

SM: The price of transformation is included. The campesino earns $1 million pesos [just under US$500] and this one [the armed-group], for transforming it, gets another million, because he must pay whoever transforms it so there is a million for the transformer and a million pesos for the campesino who sold it to him. He then sells it to a narcotrafficker, the narcotrafficker exports it. On average they get 10 million pesos [per kilo] which equals US$5,000 more than the value of the drug, that is, we’re talking about US$7,000-7,500, that is about $14 to $14.5 million pesos.

These statistics can be generalized for all Colombian narcotraffickers?

SM: It means that about US$7 billion enters the torrent of the national economy every year. How much of that do they repatriate? They repatriate between 80 and 90 percent, with the rest they buy luxury properties and stupid things overseas. But the rest enters the torrent of the national economy.

Is that a typical behavior among different narcos and different regions?

SM: Normally they leave very little hidden away. They always seek out the national economic associations [gremios económicos] who can help them inject it into the torrent of the national economy. For example in the stock exchange, in agricultural land, in investments in crops represented by respected businessmen, in the sense of having experience and recognition, whom nobody is going to investigate, because they have 10,000 hectares of sugarcane planted already, and if they plant 5,000 hectares more, nobody will investigate them because that is their tradition.

… You see, the narcotrafficking business has never been completely run by the self-defense groups or the guerrillas. It belongs to the narcotraffickers.

Dec 16

David Murcia Guzmán as a wedding photographer, a business magnate, and a prisoner (photos from Semana).

Imagine that you’re a narcotrafficker – or an associate of narcotraffickers – who needs to launder US$3 million. Why not go to a poor rural area – perhaps a remote coca-growing zone where you already have connections, and where the central government won’t notice you right away.

There, make an amazing offer to the local residents. “Give us your money,” you say, “and you can have it back, with 50% interest, in 6 months.”

Within 6 months or so, you have turned your US$3 million in “dirty” money into US$2 million in “clean” money: the contributions from thousands of grateful campesinos who magically increased their wealth. Minus, of course, the unknown amount you had to pay in bribes and lawyers’ fees to keep investigations into your finances from becoming too zealous. (Many local officials themselves become “investors” too.)

When asked how your business model can possibly work legally, simply explain that it is a “secret formula” like Coca-Cola’s recipe or Google’s search algorithm.

As long as nobody is asking, it’s a “win-win.” Colombia’s narcotraffickers, probably including demobilizing paramilitary leaders, have a trouble-free new way to launder their profits. And by spreading the wealth, you become something of a folk hero among the poor residents of forgotten corners of the country where coca-growing has long seemed like a rational economic choice. People are selling their farms to invest in your scheme. Everyone from churches to charities to soldiers is doing the same.

Eventually, members of the press and some activists become more insistent in their questions about where your money comes from. Your model becomes a bit more complicated, but also easier to access.

Participants can now put their money in prepaid cards, redeemable on purchases of appliances, motorcycles and other goods at super-stores that you’ve opened up throughout the country, including in Bogotá. Six months after spending their money on your heavily marked-up goods, they can get all of their original money back. You’ve basically just given them a free motorcycle, which you bought wholesale, in exchange for laundering enough of your money to pay for a heavily marked-up retail motorcycle.

This, of course, is an approximation of the story of David Murcia Guzmán, who until his arrest a few weeks ago was the 28-year-old head of DMG (his initials), a company founded in Orito, Putumayo in 2003. When he started the company, Murcia was working as a wedding photographer in southern Colombia’s coca heartland. By this year, DMG was one of Colombia’s 500 largest companies, with declared 2007 revenues of nearly $40 million, 60 offices nationwide and a presence in Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela. The skinny, ponytailed Murcia became a jetsetter frequently photographed in the company of models.

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