Colombia has gained notoriety as one of the major global centers for the illegal drug trade. The South American nation is rife with cartels and organized criminal groups involved in the production and distribution of every illicit drug you can think of. Drug trafficking itself has evolved to become a major challenge for the governments of Colombia.
The drug trade has sparked waves of vicious killings, conflicts between narcoparamilitary groups, guerrilla fights, drug cartel attacks, and a general upsurge in crime. It is for these reasons that the authorities have put up a spirited fight against the drug trade.
This history of the war on drugs in Colombia can be traced to the 1970s.
The Early 1970s: The Coming of Marijuana
Even though cocaine has dominated the news waves today, in the early 1970s, the Colombian government was more interested in fighting the rise in the production and consumption of marijuana. The Colombian government, alongside the United States government and some other nations, started what they branded the War on Drugs.
The United States and Colombia collaborated for many reasons, like the Black Tuna Gang operations, a Florida-based Colombian group that was dominant in the marijuana trafficking industry. The Black Tuna Gang alone delivered more than 500 tons of marijuana in the mid-1970s over just 16 months.
The Late 1970s to the 1990s: Rise of the Brutal Cartels
As Colombia’s government tried to combat the exponential rise in marijuana smuggling, newer problems cropped up with the increase of armed and secretive cartels that dealt in cocaine and heroin. While the prohibitive policies were being rolled out, the existing traffickers and producers established the weaponized cartels.
As demand from the United States and beyond increased for cocaine and heroin, newer cartels sprung up, and the existing ones expanded and became powerful crime syndicates. Each of the cartels had a kingpin or several bosses in charge. Some of the most prominent cartels in this era include the Medellin Cartel, Cali Cartel, North Coast Cartel, and Norte Del Valle Cartel.
From the 1970s to 1990, it was a constant battle between the government forces and the drug cartels. By 1993, the Medellin cartel, led by Pablo Escobar, had emerged as the number one cartel on the planet. The governments of Colombia and the United States of America focused a drug war on the Medellin cartel and its ruthless head, Pablo Escobar.
The Pablo Escobar Era (1976 to 1993)
The Medellin Cartel was a mighty, influential, highly-organized drug cartel and terrorist-type organization of crime formed in the Colombian city of the same name by Pablo Escobar. It commenced its operation in 1972, but it was until about 1976 that its brutality became prominent. At the peak of its power, the Medellin Cartel operated in Colombia, Bolivia, Panama, Canada, Peru, Central American nations, and the United States.
What made the Medellin Cartel known were its particularly savage methods. It involved drug trafficking and bombing, kidnapping, terrorism, bribery, money laundering, racketeering, murder, and even weapons trade.
It also collaborated with other deadly cartels like the Guadalajara Cartel, Gulf Cartel, La Corporacion, Muerte a Secuestradores, and Los Priscos. Its ongoing fights with other rival cartels like Cali Cartel and Los Pepes led to the loss of thousands of lives. For the Colombian government, the Medellin Cartel and Escobar crimes were too much, and the war on drugs had evolved into a war on Escobar.
The Medellin cartel in 1976 brutally assassinated two Colombian federal agents who arrested Escobar, and this was going to be one of the first of a long string of assassinations. On the 30th of April 1984, the nation of Colombia woke up in shock to the news of the assassination of Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara. He had been killed on a highway in Bogota’s capital city when two hired killers on a motorcycle trailed his car in traffic and gunned him down.
Lara’s assassination was ordered directly by Escobar because of his duty as the federal minister responsible for the prosecution of cocaine traffickers, particularly those of the Medellin Cartel. At that time, the Colombian government, the United States government, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of the United States, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were all focused on getting Escobar and neutralizing him. The killings continued.
In July 1985, another judge Tulio Manuel Castro Gil was assassinated after he indicted Pablo Escobar. In February 1985, a DEA agent, Enrique Camarena, was killed in Mexico on the Guadalajara Cartel orders and one of the drug lords of the Medellin Cartel. In 1986, a Supreme Court justice was assassinated in Bogota.
The actions of Escobar and his cartel turned Colombia into the murder capital of the world. The Colombian government would nab him, but he escaped leading to a massive manhunt launched by American and Colombian forces. About 16 months after his dramatic escape from jail, Escobar was killed in a shootout on the 2nd of December, 1993.
War on Drugs after Escobar – Present
Escobar’s killing was a significant victory for the Colombian government, but it has not stopped the drug trade. New paramilitary and militia groups have sprung into existence after Escobar, and the cartels are still very much in action. They are so active that as of 2020, Colombia was the second-biggest cocaine producer in the world, behind Peru.
The Colombian National Police and armed forces are still trying their best to curb these drug lords’ tide. Currently, the leading criminal organizations in Colombia involved in the drug trade include the Black Eagles, Bloque Meta, The Office of Envigado (the direct successor to the Medellin Cartel), Los Rastrojos, Los Machos, Los Gaitanistas, Los Paisas, and many others.
All these groups are still involved in every aspect of the illicit drug trade. They are accused of committing nonstop human rights abuses and do everything to undermine the authority and legitimacy of the democratic government. The war on drugs in Colombia rages on with maximum intensity, but no can say precisely when the battle will be over.