20 Years After Pablo: The Evolution of Colombia’s Drug Trade

Posted on Dec 6 2013 - 1:48am by Editor

b858dc03bb496ce9776eefb318ee70e6_LTwenty years ago, on December 2, 1993, Pablo Escobar, the pioneer of Colombia’s cocaine trade, was killed on a rooftop in his native Medellin by police. His death signaled the end of one era of drug trafficking and the birth of another, as the drug trade continued apace, with Medellin still at its heart.

While the mystique surrounding Escobar has grown over the last two decades, the criminal entity he founded, the Medellin Cartel, no longer exists. The cartel structure he founded, which involved controlling all the links in the drug chain from production to retail, is also dead. While the Antioquia department, of which Medellin is the capital, remains the center of Colombia’s cocaine trade, those that export drugs little resemble Escobar, a figure so powerful he was able to take on the state over the issue of extradition and win.

Over the last 20 years, Colombia’s drug trade has fragmented. Escobar was the unchallenged head of the Medellin Cartel, a vertically integrated, hierarchical criminal enterprise that initially flew in coca base from Peru and Bolivia, processed it in Colombia’s jungles, then flew it to the mainland US in staggering quantities. For two years after Escobar’s death, the Cali Cartel was able to continue operating with the same model, until the leaders, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, were captured in 1995.

In 1995 the Colombian underworld underwent a mutation. There was no longer a figure like Escobar able to rule over the cocaine industry and control all the different links in the chain. It was the epoch of the drug federations, like the Norte Del Valle Cartel, which had its roots in the Cali Cartel, and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary army whose emergence and growth was facilitated by former members of the Medellin Cartel, most especially the PEPES (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar), a criminal group born in 1992. It was also the era of the “baby cartels,” many of which specialized in certain links of the drug chain, be it cocaine laboratories or maritime transport, working together within the second generation drug trafficking organizations, like the AUC.

The PEPES were formed after Escobar killed two important figures in the Medellin Cartel, murdering Gerardo Moncada and Fernando Galeano in the Cathedral, the prison he had built for himself when he surrendered to Colombian authorities in 1991. These murders led to the splintering of the Medellin Cartel, with a rebellious faction declaring war on Escobar and setting up the PEPES, a group funded with Cali Cartel money. The PEPES membership included the founders and key members of what was to become the AUC, Fidel and Carlos Castaño, and Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna.”

The year 2006 was another watershed moment for the Colombian underworld. Competing factions of the Norte Del Valle Cartel were locked in a bloody war, and the AUC had demobilized. A new generation of drug trafficking groups were born, the BACRIM, so named by the Colombian government after the Spanish “bandas criminales.” The groups came to the fore in 2008 when a raft of AUC commanders, among them Don Berna, were extradited to the US. The last leaders of the Norte Del Valle Cartel had also been captured or killed (Diego Montoya, alias “Don Diego,” was captured in 2007, while Wilber Varela was murdered by his own men in 2008).

If Pablo Escobar were alive today, he would not immediately recognize the BACRIM, the third generation of Colombian drug trafficking syndicates, even though two of them operate in Medellin (the Oficina de Envigado and the Urabeños). First of all he would be hard pressed to find his modern day counterpart. There is not a “capo de capos” today, a single figure able to exercise control even in Medellin, let alone over a large portion of the cocaine trade. When any figure manages to climb too far up the slippery criminal ladder, he is quickly identified by the Colombian police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and brought down. His closest counterparts in the drug world are now Mexican capos, the best example being Sinaloa Cartel head Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” though even he works as part of a federation and is not the sole leader of the Mexican group.

As a result of the constant pressure from Colombian and international law enforcement, the BACRIM have mutated into a criminal syndicate that is very hard to target and almost impossible to dismantle. The BACRIM are criminal networks, made up of many different nodes, most independent, with few connections between then except that they are part of a criminal franchise, be it the Rastrojos, the Oficina de Envigado, or the most powerful of them all, the Urabeños.

While some of the nodes are more important than others, like the command node of the Urabeños, headed by the military boss, Dario Antonio Usuga, alias “Otoniel,” the removal of any single node will not necessarily lead to the fall of other nodes in the network, nor will it result in more than temporarily interrupting the flow of drugs until the network reforms itself and fills the gap. The drug traffickers of today, some of them sons of pioneers in the trade who worked alongside Escobar, are more likely to be armed with an iPad than an Uzi. One of the problems the police have today is identifying them. As the former chief of the national police force, General Oscar Naranjo, the architect of many of Colombia’s improvements in anti-narcotics intelligence gathering, wrote: “the mafia has become practically invisible.” Many of the nodes in the criminal network are individual drug traffickers with a small band behind them, who use the BACRIM as protection and take advantage of the services they offer, including control of internal movement corridors and securing departure points.

It is not just the structure of today’s drug trafficking syndicates that would make Escobar pause for thought. While he earned almost all of his money from the export of cocaine, the BACRIM today have a far more diversified criminal portfolio, engaging in extortion, illegal gold mining, gambling and micro-trafficking, dealing marijuana and even synthetic drugs as well as cocaine and its derivatives. Escobar never sold drugs to Colombians for consumption. Now the BACRIM and their affiliates are flooding Colombia’s cities with a dizzying array of illegal narcotics.

Medellin is still the capital of the cocaine trade in Colombia and this city, set in a valley in the Andes, has paid a high cost in blood for this unwelcome title. During Escobar’s day, the murder rate in Medellin was the highest in the world. Since then, the killings have come in bouts, such as when the AUC “took” the city under Don Berna, with the most recent bout of fighting in the aftermath of Don Berna’s extradition in 2008. From 2009 to July 2013 an estimated 7,000 people were killed in the Medellin mafia wars, as different challengers sought to claim Don Berna’s criminal throne as head of the Oficina de Envigado, to become the successor of the Medellin Cartel that Escobar founded.

Now a criminal “peace” has been established in Medellin. In October this year, Medellin registered its lowest murder rate in three decades, thanks to a truce negotiated in July between rival elements of the Oficina de Envigado and the powerful Urabeños, who have been exerting pressure from the outskirts of the city, taking advantage of the divisions within the Medellin mafia. The street gangs, the combos that once provided the sicarios that killed in Escobar’s name, have been tamed, at least for now. The terms of the truce promise death for those who violate the conditions by engaging in unauthorized killings.

As always, Medellin is at the forefront of the evolution of Colombia’s underworld. Now BACRIM groups the Oficina de Envigado and the Urabeños are working together to provide protection and services for a new generation of drug traffickers. This new generation is very clandestine, with the traffickers looking like young entrepreneurs or highly qualified, successful businessmen.

The drug traffickers of today are not focused solely on the US market, which is dominated by the Mexicans. Instead, they have been developing new markets in Europe, many working with the Italian mafia, or have set up operations in other Latin American countries, taking advantage of the huge Brazilian domestic market or the growing one of Argentina. Colombian organized crime has migrated abroad and taken its criminal expertise with it. Colombians are arrested in connection with the drug trade every day in nations like Peru, Spain, Bolivia, Argentina and even further afield.

The industry that Pablo Escobar pioneered has morphed so much over the last 20 years that even El Patron himself would not have easily recognized it. And the cocaine is still flowing.