The Colombian drug cartel

A 1992 high school Geography essay

An essay written for a small town high school geography course early in 1992.

Cocaine is a worldwide problem, of which Colombia has become the centre. There are many factors which have created this situation, some of them simple, many of very complex. This paper will examine the problem of cocaine in society, the current status of the war against cocaine, and where the Colombian cartel fits in. The effects of the drug (cocaine) itself is a good place to start.

Cocaine is psychoactive drug that is found naturally in the leaves of the coca plant1. It has been used for centuries by the Andean Indians in Colombia, to reduce fatigue and hunger. Cocaine is a strong positive reinforcer. This means that each time this drug is used it increases the desire to use it again, dramatically. Studies with animals have shown that given the choice between cocaine and food, sleep, or sex, animals will choose cocaine2. Cocaine also interferes with the central nervous system, especially the brain, creating hallucination, and causing (after an initial euphoria) increased irritability, and paranoia.

The reason cocaine has become so popular, is that there is (or rather was) a common myth that it is harmless, and non-addictive. This, in addition to its former high cost, was the reason is why it was called “the champagne of drugs” 3. Then, because of the drug cartels, cocaine became relatively inexpensive, increasing the market to include the less affluent in society. The price has now increased due to the reduced supply–a direct result of the government crackdown in Colombia–which should reduce the numbers of those abusing the drug 4.

It has taken many years for this progress to become apparent, and the war is far from over. In fact, since being forced back in Colombia(many of the cartel leaders have been killed or charged), drug traffickers have increased their activities in other South American countries, such as Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil 5. This is both good, and bad. It is good, because it means the Colombian government is finally effectively fighting the cartels(especially the Medellín cartel), but bad because these other countries are like Colombia, during the worst of the drug wars.

Because of increased U.S. efforts to curb drug smuggling, Canada has become a popular port of entry for drug traffickers. As one R.C.M.P officer put it, “It’s like the Pillsbury Doughboy, you squeeze it one place and it comes out somewhere else.” 6. The U.S. arrest of General Manuel Noriega in Panama is an example of the drastic U.S. action which has resulted in a sort of victory in the drug wars. There has also been a U.S. cleanup in the Bahamas (formerly one of the most drug-money corrupted countries in the world, after Colombia) 7.

Colombia became the centre of the cocaine trade for a variety of reasons. Janã Salgar, the acting editor-in-chief of “El Spectador”, the most out-spoken paper in Colombia explains:

Colombia is ideally situated geographically to receive the coca leaf that is planted in the south–in Peru and Bolivia. The great cocaine processing plants were established in Colombia because it is in the middle of the Americas, with possibilities for immediate air and ship transportation with many connections. This is why Colombia has the greatest concentration of drug money in the world. Added to this are some political factors.

There is a zone in the Colombian interior called Magdalena Medio, where local self-defensive groups, initially intended to combat communism, were formed with help from the paramilitary. The paramilitary do not belong to the official government forces but are friends of the military. Then, these groups were joined by the drug traffickers. So what was going to be a political guerrilla group to fight communism became a force allied to the drug mafia for the destabilization of democracy 8.

In this environment Medellín, a large city in Colombia, was simply one the triangle of cocaine centres, which included Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali. However, because of “luck”, and the determination of several paisa families in this area, it became the cocaine capital of the world. The families in this area eventually grouped together and formed the Medellín cartel, an extremely large, and brutally effective organization which long overshadowed the second largest cartel–the Cali Cartel 9.

Initially the Medellín cartel was ignored by Colombian officials, because it didn’t perpetrate any more violence than was common, at the time 10, and cocaine was considered harmless. As Kings of Cocaine says of Jorge Louis Ochoa Vasquez, “Ochoa thought cocaine was a harmless vice. If people could afford it, they could use it. And if that that made Jorge Ochoa rich, all the better” 11 This attitude was shared by many Colombians, especially those in the slums. However, “…there were a vast number of honest Colombians who hated what they were doing to the country” 12

The politicians were slow to pickup on this dislike of the cartel, because of the corruption caused by the fact that many politicians had “played footsie with the traffickers, taken their money, and pretended they didn’t know where it came from, or that it didn’t matter” 13. Justice Minister Lara Bonilla began to change both the political scene, and much of the former goodwill that existed towards the Medellín cartel 14. (The Cali cartel, not being so violent, and informing on the Medellín cartel, was, and is not hindered much by police, or politicians 15.) Corruption is also rife within the Colombian judicial system because “The drug traffickers tell the judges, ‘Either you rule in our favour, or we will kill you. If you rule in our favour we will pay you.’”16 There have en efforts by the government to protect judges better, which has had some effect in decreasing judicial corruption.

Another big problem within Colombia, resulting from the drug trade, is widespread drug use. Because of the large amounts of cocaine in the country, it is very cheap (about $15 per gram in Bogotá). And for the poor a cruder, cheaper form called bazuko, an intermediate product in cocaine refining which often contains traces of leaded gasoline, kerosene, ether, and sulphuric acid, (all which can cause brain damage) is available. As a result there are about two million drug users in Colombia 17.

As you can clearly see, the Colombian drug cartel, specifically the Medellín cartel are major threats, which need to be dealt with. Not only are they violent, but they are in the business of spreading an addictive poison–cocaine. Fortunately there is international effort to combat the cartel, but is it too little, too late?


  • “Afterword”, Kings of Cocaine, Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen, (Harper & Row: New York, 1990)
  • “Beating back the cocaine kings”, U.S. News & World Report, Guy Gugliotta, (U.S. News & World Report: New York, Feb. 19, 1990)
  • “Colombian Journalists vs. Drug Terrorists”, World Press Review, C. Dominique van do Stadi, (World Press Review: New York, January 1990)
  • “The War That Will Not End”, TIME, John Moody, (Reynolds Publishing: Richmond Hill, July 23, 1990)
  • “The Canadian connection”, Newsweek, Harry F. Waters, (RBW Graphics: Owen Sound, January 8, 1990)
  • Cocaine, Jack Mendelson M.D. and Nancy Mello Ph.D (Chelsea House Publishers: New York, 1986)
  • Kings of Cocaine, Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen, (Harper & Row: New York, 1989)

  1. Mendelson, Jack M.D., and Mello, Nancy, Ph.D Cocaine (New York, 1986), p. 20 ↩︎

  2. Ibid., p. 77 ↩︎

  3. Ibid., p. 61 ↩︎

  4. Gugliotta, Guy “Beating back the cocaine kings”, U.S. News & World Report, (New York: Feb. 19, 1990), pp. 18-20 ↩︎

  5. Ibid., p. 19 ↩︎

  6. Waters, Harry F. “The Canadian Connection”, Newsweek (New York: January 8, 1990, p. 60 ↩︎

  7. Gugliotta, Guy and Leen, Jeff “Afterword”, Kings of Cocaine, (New York, 1990), p.595 ↩︎

  8. Dominique van do Stadi, C. “Colombian Journalists vs. Drug Terrorists”, World Press Review (New York: January 1990), p. 39 ↩︎

  9. Gugliotta, Guy and Leen, Jeff, Kings of Cocaine (New York, 1990), p. 24 ↩︎

  10. Ibid., p. 125 ↩︎

  11. Ibid., p.31 ↩︎

  12. Ibid., p.182 ↩︎

  13. Ibid., p.175 ↩︎

  14. Ibid., p. 226 ↩︎

  15. Moody, John “The War That Will Not End”, TIME (Richmond Hill: July 23, 1990), p. 13 ↩︎

  16. Dominique van do Stadi, C. “Colombian Journalists vs. Drug Terrorists”, World Press Review (New York: January 1990), p. ? ↩︎

  17. Gugliotta, Guy and Leen, Jeff Kings of Cocaine (New York, 1990), p. 423 ↩︎