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 CÃ³rdoba [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 CÃ³rdoba there are between 15,000 and 18,000 hectares of coca, of which we controlled half and the guerrillas half. In CÃ³rdoba 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 CÃ³rdoba and in Catatumbo [another region Mancuso dominated, in Norte de Santander department near Venezuela], and in part of southern BolÃvar [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 econÃ³micos] 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.