The cocaine mafia started in a small way in the early 1970s but, within a short time, the drug trade developed into a powerful industry with its own plantations, laboratories, transportation services and protection.
The boom years began in the early 1980s. The Medellín Cartel, led by Pablo Escobar, became the main mafia and its bosses lived in freedom and luxury.
In 1983 the government launched a campaign against the drug trade, which gradually turned into an all-out war. The war became even bloodier in August 1989 when Luis Carlos Galán, the leading Liberal contender for the 1990 presidential election, was assassinated.
The election of the Liberal President César Gaviria (1990–94) brought a brief period of hope. However, Escobar escaped from his palatial prison following the government’s bumbling attempts to move him to a more secure site. An elite 1500-man special unit hunted Escobar for 499 days, until it tracked him down in Medellín and killed him in December 1993.
Despite this, the drug trade continued unaffected. The Cali Cartel, led by the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, swiftly moved into the shattered Medellín Cartel’s markets and became Colombia’s largest trafficker. Although the cartel’s top bosses were captured in 1995, the drug trade continued to flourish, with other regional drug cartels, paramilitaries and the guerrillas filling the gap left by the two original mafias.
In 1999 then-President Andrés Pastrana launched Plan Colombia with US backing. The plan called for the total eradication of the coca plant from Colombia by spraying fields with herbicide. While the program has achieved some success on paper (cultivated land has been cut by around half), it has also generated dire environmental effects, as impoverished growers moved their crops into national parks, where the spraying is banned.
The job of eradicating cocaine from Colombia appears to be an unachievable task. Despite US aid of around US$6 billion, latest figures show that production has stabilised. However, Colombia is still one of the world’s largest producers.
Excerpt From: Planet, Lonely. “Lonely Planet South America.” Lonely Planet. iBooks. This material may be protected by copyright.