Cocaine Trade Shifts in Colombia
Pressure on Medell'in drug lords gives Cali cartel and many small traffickers more business
CALI, COLOMBIA — LAW enforcement efforts to fracture the multibillion dollar Medell'in cocaine cartel have had the unintended effect of scattering the trade in cocaine among many smaller groups throughout Colombia. Nowhere is this shift more evident than in the southern Colombian city of Cali, whose share of the world cocaine market now rivals that of the more well-known and notorious Medell'in-based cartel, United States and Colombian authorities say.
Increasingly, these officials say they must focus antidrug efforts on the growing ranks of smaller Cali traffickers.
Although Colombian security forces have battled Medell'in traffickers during the past two years, the so-called Cali cartel has quietly increased its share of the world cocaine market to at least 50 percent, authorities say. Several years ago, the Medell'in cartel was thought to control perhaps 75 percent of the market.
``The Cali cartel these days is a major threat to the United States in terms of volume,'' said Robert Bonner, director of the US Drug Enforcement Administration in a telephone interview. ``It's a priority for the DEA. Many of our resources are now focused on Cali.''
The Cali cartel is allegedly led by three men, brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodr'iguez Orejuela and Jos'e Santacruz Londono, all wanted in the US, police say. But a political scientist who has studied Cali trafficking says the three suspects are just part of the problem.
``The idea that there is a Cali cartel is false, because there are many groups operating here,'' says Alvaro Guzman from his office at the city's Valle University. ``Sure there is a hierarchy [of drug traffickers], but they don't operate together as a single organism in perfect harmony.''
In recent months, as some of the Medell'in cartel's terrorists were being killed in confrontations with police, three of that organization's leaders were surrendering under a government plan of lenient treatment, including a guarantee that they would not be extradited to the US.
The Ochoa brothers, Fabio, Juan David, and Jorge Luis, gave themselves up and are awaiting trial in a Medell'in jail.
Now the government's policy of alternately pressuring and wooing the cartel appears on the verge of achieving its greatest success - the surrender of the organization's leader, Pablo Escobar.
On May 20, Mr. Escobar freed the last two of 10 hostages kidnapped by the cartel in 1990. A Roman Catholic priest who reportedly met with Escobar while negotiating the hostages' freedom said last week that the drug boss would surrender in coming days.
``Escobar's surrender would represent ... the final blow in dismantling the Medell'in cartel as a cartel,'' says a senior Colombian official in Bogot'a. ``There will still be Medell'in traffickers, but the organization will disappear.''
Others disagree, saying Escobar could easily run his business from jail. Several Western diplomats in Bogot'a accuse the Ochoas of doing just that, a charge denied by the government.
Still others think that even if Escobar and the Ochoas are put out of business, the cocaine trade will not be affected because other groups in Medell'in, Cali, and other cities will simply take up the production slack.
Another US official says the shift is already taking place.
Drug war in transition
``There are more and more independent producers and exporters of cocaine springing up, so that I don't think it's right to talk about the Medell'in and Cali groups as cartels anymore.''
The situation has changed drastically from the late 1970s, when Escobar and the Ochoas revolutionized the drug trade by taking control of cocaine marketing in the US. Colombian traffickers had previously sold their product within their own borders, failing to take advantage of the huge price markup abroad.
The Medell'in cartel, as it came to be known, earned its founders billions. Its rival in Cali also prospered, mainly through control of the New York City cocaine market, US law enforcement officials say. Turf battles between the two groups led to a series of bombings in Colombia in 1988 and 1989.
Some analysts now say the country must change its antidrug strategies in light of the changes in the business.
There are more than 100 significant groups exporting cocaine from Colombia, according to a count by one of the country's senior law enforcement officials, who says security forces should end years of fixation on a few big traffickers.
``From a law enforcement point of view the situation is more difficult than ever,'' says the official. ``We know all about Pablo Escobar - what he looks like, with whom he associates. Maybe we will eventually know about some of the new traffickers as well. But for now they are practically invisible.''
Authorities' blows to the Medell'in cartel have not succeeded in stopping the flow of Colombian cocaine, but there is debate about how much is being exported.
Losing market control
The Colombian government estimates that cocaine shipments are just 60 percent of what they were in 1989, when the antidrug campaign intensified. This year 37 metric tons of cocaine were seized compared with 45 metric tons last year.
``Let's say there are 200 new pygmy traffickers,'' the senior government official speculates. ``They will be exporting drugs in an erratic manner, not at all like the Medell'in cartel. It could be true that small shipments are going to get through more easily, but overall, the volume will be reduced.''
US officials estimate that a reduction has yet to occur since current cocaine exports are at least equal to 1989 levels. Says one, ``Medell'in has lost control over its markets and other groups are moving in. Some of them are based in Cali, but other cities are involved as well.''
On the other hand, the government's leniency program has succeeded in curtailing drug terrorism sponsored by the Medell'in cartel. But the rise of independent trafficking groups does not bode well for cities like Cali, where cocaine turf battles are reportedly responsible for a significant jump in murders this year.
Cartel with hidden claws
The Cali cartel, unlike its Medell'in rival, is not thought to have sponsored terrorism against the state. But analysts say that could change if police turn their attention to Cali in the wake of the Medell'in cartel's demise.
``If there is an increase of repressive action in Cali, traffickers, both large and small, will react just as they did in Medell'in,'' Mr. Guzman says.
With so many independent groups operating, he argues that a police campaign would serve only to wreck the city, a prospect many people here worry about.
``The Cali citizen, above all, does not want to repeat the experience of Medell'in,'' says Alvaro Camacho, another political scientist who has studied Cali.
In Medell'in, the cartel's intensive campaign of bombings, murders, and attacks on police have led to social disintegration and the highest murder and crime rates in the country.