Colombia's Drug Industry

Since 1975, Colombia has been one of the major international drug suppliers in the world -- most significantly fulfilling the demands of Europe and the United States. For the 300 million people who have consumed cocaine in their life, Colombia is reported to have produced around 70% of the total cocaine consumed in 2018 according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. As much as 70% of the total marijuana imported in the United States is also from Colombia. Due to the lack of state control in remote areas, many regions of Colombia are home to illegal activities, including the cultivation and processing of drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

Although the massive illegal drug industry, which is largely led by two Mafia-like organizations called drug cartels located in the cities Medellín and Cali, is a political problem for the Colombian government, it has also been an economic asset for the country since decades ago. While it causes violence and crime, the exportation of drugs allows the net annual trade balances to remain positive when the balance from legal products is negative. In addition, Colombia has long suffered from a poor manufacturing industry due to a lack of capital, technology, and investment, the income from trading drugs has been able to reduce the loss. In a country like Colombia with a large gap in the distribution of wealth between economic classes, the drug industry is many citizens’ way of surviving. Currently, at least 130,000 Colombian families rely on cultivating coca for a steady income. Ironically, due to the success of drug trade, illegal businesses actually benefited the general population more than legal ones.

There have been efforts to curb this potent industry and work on developing other legal industries, however, due to the dangerous nature of drug trades involving violent “pandilleros” (gangs), the corruption of the political system, and their negative influence on foreign countries that receive the narcotics. One of the early attempts was in the election of 1990. Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, an anti-drug member of the Liberal Party, was elected president despite the terrorism from angry cartels, and stricter policies against drug trade were drafted. However, they were largely only inscribed on paper of the Colombian Constitution, and their enforcement was temporary and weak. The industry only expanded from a major cocaine supplier in the 1980s to a major coca and heroin grower, processor, and shipper, which continues to today.

Currently, the United Nations is actively attempting to eradicate the illegal exchange by collaborating with the Colombian government and its principal countries of export, Europe and the United States. The Colombian government has tried many methods including spraying chemicals that kill coca in the plantations and seizing them. However, eliminating the industry is complicated due to the corrupt government officials who are bribed by wealthy drug dealers and large armed groups that protect the cartels. There have also been disagreements among foreign countries about methods to combat illegal narcotics trade. For example, while the United Nations and Europe are advocating for crop substitution and rural development, which involves providing alternative methods for farmers to support themselves with other crops and extending government regulation into remote rural areas, the United States is pushing for more immediate and aggressive solutions, such as forced eradication with the use of chemicals against crops. United Nations and Europe argue that forced eradication results in violent clashes with the cartels while the United States urges the need for an immediate halt in the dangerous industry. Although numerous measures have been created and applied, the Colombian drug industry is continuing to proliferate and is intoxicating the majority of drug users in the world.