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date: 24 June 2022

The Drug Wars in Colombiafree

The Drug Wars in Colombiafree

  • Lina BrittoLina BrittoProfessor of History, Northwestern University


From Hollywood movies to binge-worthy TV shows, stories of Colombian narcotraficantes waging war against state agents and civilians are profitable narrative devices of our times. But beyond the screen, the history is not as clear-cut or simple. The drug wars in Colombia began years before the cocaine lords launched a crusade against extradition in the mid-1980s. Building upon a long history of military and intelligence cooperation against communism during the Cold War, the US and Colombian governments engaged in a series of diplomatic exchanges during the 1970s to define the best approach to the growing traffic in marijuana and cocaine between the two countries. By the end of the decade, this long process of political accommodation led to the first drug war in the South American nation. Since then, antinarcotics campaigns against producers of illicit crops and the criminal structures that controlled exportation and distribution to the United States and European markets have constituted essential components in the relationship between the two countries. For the last forty years, prohibitionist drug policies and militarized antinarcotics campaigns have systematically interacted with traffickers’ efforts at survival and their ruthless competition for the accumulation of capital, power, and status. As a result of this dynamic, warfare has become the norm in the functioning of the illicit business as well as in the state’s efforts at drug control and repression, making Colombia one of the main theaters of the drug wars in the world.


  • History of Northern and Andean Spanish America
  • History of Southern Spanish America
  • 1945–1991
  • 1991 and After

An Ambiguous Term

Since the British Empire waged the first modern drug war in the mid-19th century to force Chinese governments to accept imports of opium from India, the term “drug war” has been an ambiguous concept.1 Either “openly avowed or tacit enterprises,” drug wars have been as much about expanding the drug trade as they have been about limiting it and, in most cases, they worked as “pretexts for social and political repression or both.”2 It was President Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs,” launched in the fall of 1969, that clarified the nature, goals, and scope of contemporary drug wars. Its distinctive feature was the ambition to tackle the two sides of drug economies simultaneously, namely supply and demand, and to do so through prohibitionist policies and militarized means at home and abroad.3 The US-Mexican border and Mexico’s northwestern region on the Pacific coast became the first laboratories of experimentation.4 A decade later, the vortex of the “war on drugs” was displaced from the Mexican Pacific to the Colombian Caribbean, where the country’s first regional drug economy emerged around marijuana production and exportation to the United States. Since then, the South American nation has been one of the world’s main producers of illicit drugs and one of the main theaters of the drug wars.

Figure 1. Colombia today.

Map by Bill Nelson. Provided courtesy of Bill Nelson.

Considered one of the most stable representative democracies in Latin America, since the late 1940s, however, Colombia has also been one of the countries with some of the highest levels of social and political violence in the hemisphere. The advent of the drug trafficking business in the early 1970s and the adoption of the “war on drugs” paradigm at the end of the decade only made the paradox “between legitimacy and violence” more complex.5 High homicide rates, rebel groups controlling vast areas, and state and para-state forces waging war against them are some of the “gruesome analogues” between the mid-20th-century civil war of La Violencia and “the violent processes subsumed under the effects of the drug trade” during the last quarter of the century.6 If the drug wars in Colombia are deeply rooted in history, and their dynamics are entangled with the political and social conflict, where do we draw the line analytically?

Most historical accounts resolved this question by placing the origins of Colombia’s drug wars on April 30, 1984, when two adolescent sicarios (contract killers) assassinated Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. The incident prompted President Belisario Betancur (1982–1986) to declare martial law, close ranks with the US government, and mobilize the military, police, and intelligence apparatuses against the criminal structures that monopolized the production, commerce, exportation, and distribution of cocaine. The assassination and the state’s response have been presented as the opening salvos of a decades-long war with a twofold goal. First, Colombian governments aimed to cut the flow of the illegal drug trade to the United States in the hope of reducing the supply of cocaine in order to increase prices and discourage consumers. Second, governments expected to restore the rule of law in urban and rural areas under the drug lords’ aegis. According to their own calculations, governments consistently failed at both objectives.7 However, despite these failures, Presidents Bill Clinton and Andrés Pastrana launched Plan Colombia in 2000, a militarized antinarcotics strategy that cost $1.3 billion dollars in joint expenditure per year and became the model that countries around the world—from Mexico to Afghanistan—would follow.8

Although this narrative correctly identifies the war against the cocaine cartels as the centerpiece of this story, it fails to capture the complexity of Colombia’s drug wars. Since the 1970s, and building on previous experiences of diplomatic agreements and military missions going back to World War II, as well as anti-communist and counterinsurgent cooperation during the Cold War period, the US and Colombian governments have been working together to define and negotiate joint responses to the ever-growing drug trafficking problem between the two nations. Hence, counterinsurgent strategies and techniques have served as foundations of drug control policies and antinarcotics campaigns since inception.

This dialogue between counterinsurgency and antinarcotics has worked as the framework within which drug producers and traffickers operate insofar as it creates opportunities as well as limits to their efforts at survival and ruthless competition for the accumulation of capital, power, and status.9 In the interplay between militarized law enforcement and criminal adaptation, a new type of warfare became the norm in the functioning of the illegal business and in the interactions between those involved in it and state representatives in charge of controlling and repressing it. Thus, the multifaceted drug wars in Colombia have been products of violent conflicts over the highly profitable illegal markets, outcomes of specific policies by state agencies against individuals and communities involved in the production and trafficking of illegal drugs, and consequences of the use of the profits from the drug trade by armed groups involved in the long-term political conflict—guerrilla and paramilitary organizations, primarily.

Marijuana: The Missing Link

In 1970, former military dictator General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953–1957) challenged the National Front. This pact, which was established in 1958 between the Liberal and Conservative parties to put an end to the ramifications of the civil war known as La Violencia (1946–1953), divided the state apparatus exclusively among the members of the two parties and alternated the presidency between them every four years until the elections of 1974. Emboldened by a grassroots movement that rejected the National Front’s principles, Rojas Pinilla almost defeated the candidates of the Conservative party, whose turn it was to rule.10 After a controversial vote count, elected President Misael Pastrana (1970–1974) assumed power to deal with the problem of legitimacy and governance of the National Front, which Rojas Pinilla’s populism brought to the fore.11

Until then the country, whose location makes it a geostrategic corner in the Americas, had played no major role in the production and circulation of illegal drugs in the hemisphere. But once the US and Mexican governments embarked on the “war on drugs” starting in the fall of 1969, Colombian smugglers stepped in to supply the marijuana that the growing US counterculture market demanded.12 A few years later, in 1973, the military coup in Chile and the political repression that ensued all over the Southern Cone disrupted the transnational networks of “ant smugglers” that exported Peruvian and Bolivian cocaine from different ports in this region, producing a vacuum in the business that Colombians eventually filled in.13

In the face of the growing drug trade, and mounting pressure from the newly created diplomatic post of US Narcotics Coordinator, Conservative president Pastrana decreed a series of legislative and administrative reforms to upgrade the country’s capacity to control the illegal activity.14 The National Narcotics Council, which was a consultation board of scientists and law enforcement officials, the National Security Council, which was a multiagency on public order, and the National Narcotics Statute, which was a treatise that synthesized existing legislations, worked in tandem to transfer knowledge and technologies between Colombian and US agencies, and coordinate with the newly created Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).15 Together they established a template for the future of the “war on drugs” in Colombia.

In the meantime, the illegal traffic of marijuana surpassed that of cocaine. The failure of the National Front’s land reform during the 1960s led to a fast deterioration of working and living conditions in the countryside, which ultimately contributed to the consolidation of a marijuana belt in the northernmost part of the Caribbean coast, in the Guajira Peninsula and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.16 Because Colombia lacked commercial fields of coca leaf for the processing of the alkaloid (the country did have indigenous coca production for traditional uses), the parallel business of cocaine, which was anchored in the Andean interior of the country, was limited socially to a few networks of exporters that smuggled small amounts of coca paste from Peru and Bolivia and refined it into cocaine in improvised laboratories. At the same time, the popularly known bonanza marimbera (marijuana boom) was a profitable regional economy that involved thousands of people and reached its peak of production in 1976.

The next president, Liberal Alfonso López Michelsen (1974–1978) was in the midst of an intensification of the crisis of governance and legitimacy of the National Front and proved to be helpless to respond.17 As street protests and political frictions exacerbated, more urgent needs took precedence, particularly after the national strike of September 14, 1977, which paralyzed Colombia and convinced the military that guerrilla organizations had infiltrated the social movements.18 Thus, when the political crisis peaked in April 1978—after CBS’s 60 Minutes leaked a confidential memorandum to President Carter listing the names of powerful Colombians involved in drug trafficking, including Julio César Turbay, the presidential candidate for the Liberal party in the coming elections—the establishment closed ranks, denounced a campaign to stain the country’s international image, and moved to the right.19

By adopting the paradigm of the “war on drugs,” the Liberal party aborted the crisis and won the first presidential elections after the official end of the National Front. Once in office, President Turbay (1978–1982) issued the Security Statute, a collection of decrees that merged for the first time the two components of the state’s repressive agenda, namely counterinsurgency and antinarcotics.20 Months later, on November 1, 1978, Washington and Bogotá launched the “Two Peninsulas” campaign, a militarized initiative that targeted both the Guajira and Florida peninsulas—the beginning and the end of the marijuana circuit, respectively—although with a major emphasis placed “at the source,” that is the Colombian side.21 In the meantime, surgical operations against cocaine processing laboratories in the country’s Andean interior continued.22 Replicating antinarcotics tactics used in Mexico years earlier and counterinsurgent techniques that were well established in the country since the 1950s, the Turbay administration declared martial law in the marijuana region in order to conduct operations of traffic interdiction and crops eradication.23 The first aerial fumigations against illicit crops in Colombia took place at this time in the Sierra Nevada with paraquat, the same herbicide used in Mexico, which had sparked a heated debate in the United States.24

The immediate results of the campaign were controversy and bloodshed. Marijuana traffickers reacted with violence to the reduction of their maneuvering space, which made their activities riskier and more expensive. Military officials openly criticized and even refused to get involved in this type of law enforcement. Corruption scandals mushroomed. And a humanitarian crisis due to the growing number of arrests of US traffickers created new diplomatic tensions. To resolve these intertwined problems, President Turbay ordered a series of reforms that ultimately created the framework for the subsequent war between the state and the cocaine cartels. He established the first antinarcotics special unit to be under military discipline but not part of the Armed Forces, signed the Extradition and Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties with the United States, and resorted to statistics to justify executive orders that were not sanctioned by the Colombian congress and get more financial assistance from Washington, since the amount of US aid depended on quantifiable results.25 Together, the creation of special squads, the Extradition Treaty, and the use of statistics as central components of the public discourse marked the beginning of a new phase.

Cocaine: The Never-Ending War

Like marijuana traffickers, cocaine merchants emerged in the second half of the 1960s out of existing networks of contraband of general merchandise operating from the Andean interior of the country.26 But contrary to the former, the cocaine trade depended on foreign raw materials, that is to say, coca paste from Peru and Bolivia, which traffickers refined in urban laboratories and exported in concealable amounts to the Panama Canal Zone and the US East Coast.27 In 1976, the same year the marijuana economy boomed, a series of arrests, failed businesses, and killings birthed a new cohort of traffickers that wished to take over the wholesale distribution in New York and Miami, and in doing so they unleashed a war in South Florida and fueled an accelerated growth of the cocaine business within Colombia.28 Pablo Escobar became the most prominent figure of this new generation.

Reducing dependency on Peruvian and Bolivian coca paste became essential for the stability of the new cocaine lords. Beginning in 1978, with state forces concentrated on the Caribbean marijuana belt and, to a lesser extent, the urban laboratories of the Andean interior, cocaine entrepreneurs headed south to the foothills of the eastern cordillera, southeastern lowlands, and Amazonian basin, particularly in the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo. In the agricultural frontiers, traffickers distributed coca seeds and chemicals for free; established cocaine refineries; taught colonos (settlers) processing methods; bought the product on site, often bartering with basic goods such as food and clothing; and took care of its transportation. Coca and cocaine provided colonos with sustenance and work, contributing to the formation of counter-hegemonic ethical and moral codes according to which these illegal activities were socially legitimate.29 Moreover, the coca and cocaine economy attracted a new wave of migration from people who did not aspire to become colonos but to reap the fruits of various opportunities for employment and fast accumulation.30 In other words, the new coca and cocaine economy contributed to convert these isolated communities of settlers into frontier societies and floating populations of permanently displaced people.31

And while the cocaine business expanded territorially in the peripheries, the political conflict heated up in the central areas of the country. On the one hand, the guerrilla movement changed strategy vis-à-vis President Turbay’s Security Statute. The creation of the 19th of April Movement (M19) after the defeat of presidential candidate Rojas Pinilla in 1970 turned cities into war theaters, as the M19 recruited members from slums and universities.32 Meanwhile, in the countryside, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a rural guerrilla group created in 1966 that was on the verge of extinction in the early 1980s, began to kidnap landowners, a practice it learned from the M19’s financial activities of abducting cocaine businessmen and their relatives for handsome ransoms.33 On the other hand, the paramilitary movement emerged as a result of a clash between the guerrillas, the cocaine elites, and the landowner class.34 Rooted in an even longer history of counterinsurgent state-sponsored terror, the seed was planted in 1981, when the leadership of the Medellín Cartel—Pablo Escobar, the Ochoa brothers, and Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha—created MAS (Muerte a Secuestradores or Death to Kidnappers), an organization dedicated to avenging their victims and ridding the country of subversives.35 Much like death squads in the 1950s and 1960s, simply known as pájaros (birds), MAS initially operated regionally, in the Magdalena Medio province, a central valley not far from Medellín, in the departments of Antioquia and Santander, where cocaine entrepreneurs invested in lands and haciendas.36 Soon various factors combined for the burgeoning movement to expand nationally.

The presidential elections of 1982 were the tipping point. Belisario Betancur, a politician who could not count on the machinery of the Conservative party for which he ran, scored an improbable victory, helped by the promise of negotiating peace and the disarray of the Liberal party after two consecutive administrations drowned in scandals and crises. Without the support of the Colombian establishment or the US government, President Betancur established peace talks.37 Barred from attacking the guerrillas while negotiations were proceeding, a sector of the military got closer to the paramilitary groups. The Castaño brothers serving in the ranks of MAS bridged the two sectors. In 1983, upon his return from Israel, where he received military training in counterinsurgency, the youngest of the brothers, Carlos, began to work with the oldest, Fidel, aka Rambo, one of Escobar’s business partners, and together they secured the support of active-duty and retired members of the state security forces who rejected President Betancur’s peace agenda.38

With paramilitary organizations getting stronger in the northwestern and central regions, the guerrilla movement sought to cement their presence in the southeastern lowlands and Amazonian basin, where coca had become the main cash crop of the destitute masses fleeing to the agricultural frontiers.39 The FARC, the largest rural guerrilla group, rapidly adapted and began its metamorphosis into a tributary statelet to parasitize the cocaine boom through mechanisms such as gramaje (coca paste tax). Their old strategy of establishing fronts in areas of agricultural colonization to get the sympathy of communities of colonos evolved into a more aggressive approach aimed at taking over zones where the profitable cocaine economy dominated.40 Lacking roads, water, electricity, health care, and education, these territories offered FARC’s fronts the opportunity of winning social support by providing basic services, from works of infrastructure to administration of justice. Smaller groups like the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the M19 also intensified the extraction of protection rents in these areas. They did so in combination with terrorist tactics and political penetration of state institutions at the local level.41 Vandalism, car bombings, extortions, and kidnappings became substitutes for insurrection in zones where the guerrillas had recently arrived or pretended to control.42 Selective assassinations or cooptation of local leaders, disruption of elections, and the implementation of various mechanisms of control of municipal budgets helped them to translate their military might into local political power.43 In the process, cocaine money became the guerrillas’ main resource.

This tangled web of dubious alliances between the unlikeliest partners were the subject of one of Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla’s investigations at the moment of his murder. As a founding member of New Liberalism, a dissident wing of the Liberal party that supported Betancur’s bid for the presidency, the minister looked into the growing influence of cocaine entrepreneurs in all aspects of national life.44 In partnership with another young politician, Luis Carlos Galán, Lara Bonilla took care personally of a case involving Pablo Escobar, who had won a seat in Congress as alternate deputy for one of the many cliques that comprised New Liberalism and was known at the time as a successful businessman. After months of debates, Lara Bonilla got Escobar expelled from the Liberal party and Congress. Then, on March 10, 1984, the minister authorized an operation with the DEA to dismantle what turned out to be the largest cocaine laboratory at the time, Tranquilandia, a compound of nineteen refineries that was located in Caquetá, an area controlled by the FARC. After the raid, US Ambassador Lewis Tambs coined the term “narcoguerrilla” to refer to the connection between traffickers and subversives, and with the label a new discourse that denied the political nature and logic of the guerrilla movement emerged in the public sphere.45

The retaliatory assassination of Lara Bonilla a month later, on April 30, shocked everybody, including those behind the crime, who did not expect President Betancur’s reaction.46 Within hours, more than a hundred traffickers fled to Panama, where General Manuel Antonio Noriega, its strongman and a key asset in the CIA’s Iran-Contras connection of arms and cocaine, welcomed them.47 Through the mediation of former president López Michelsen, the expatriates approached the Betancur administration. But negotiations stalled in July 1984.48 Afterward, most traffickers returned to the country ready to use the exorbitant economic and social power they had amassed through employment, charity, corruption, and violence in the service of a “war against the state”—as the systematic killing of judges, police officers, and state functionaries came to be known in the media.49

The next year, 1985, the Betancur administration went down in flames. On November 6 and 7, the M19 took over the Palace of Justice, a siege that ended with a military and police offensive, the building on fire, and ninety-four people killed, including twenty-five Supreme Court Justices. Then, on November 13, an avalanche of lava and mud buried Armero, a town of twenty-five thousand people, after the government didn’t attend to several warnings to evacuate the area in the face of the imminent eruption of Nevado del Ruíz.50

The turbulent tenure of Conservative Betancur revitalized the Liberal party, whose landslide victory, despite low voter turnout in the elections of 1986, brought Virgilio Barco (1986–1990) to power. After his inauguration, President Barco declared two wars. One was against poverty, the other against the cocaine cartels.51 In the meantime, the paramilitary forces stepped up the extermination campaign against social and human rights organizations as well as members of the Patriotic Union (UP), the political party the FARC created amid negotiations with Betancur. Drug lords, on the other hand, obfuscated their murderous resistance to extradition in the banner of Los Extraditables (the ones to be extradited), a title that allowed them to pass for legitimate political actors while simultaneously widening the scope of their war to include high-profile Colombians in addition to state agents. They announced their new strategy of indiscriminate violence by murdering Guillermo Cano, publisher of El Espectador newspaper, on December 17, 1986.52 And while the paramilitaries made civilian massacres their modus operandi, the drug lords perfected the use of young sicarios from Medellín’s slums in suicidal operations on motorcycles—as was the case in Minister Lara Bonilla’s killing.53 The arrest and extradition of one of the Medellín Cartel’s founding members, Carlos Lehder, between February 4 and 5, 1987, only added fuel to the fire.

The inauguration of George H. W. Bush in January 1989 deepened these entangled wars. Through the Andean Initiative, President Bush made Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia the main beneficiaries of US antinarcotics aid in the world.54 During Reagan’s administration, most US foreign aid in the hemisphere had been funneled to Central America. President Bush pretended to correct the imbalance.55 The goal was to attack real and potential links between the drug trade and any form of insurgency by supporting the military component of the “war on drugs” and using traffic interdiction and crops eradication as main mechanisms of action. However, these tactics pitted the armed forces against those at the lowest echelons of the drug chain, undermining the respect and legitimacy of the state at the local level.56

Furthermore, the Andean Initiative did not prevent cocaine money from continuing to finance obscure alliances that challenged the state’s ability to govern. During the course of a year, a mix of paramilitary commanders, drug barons, active and retired state security agents, members of dissident wings of guerrilla organizations, and corrupted politicians destabilized the campaign for the coming presidential elections of 1990.57 On August 18, 1989, Luis Carlos Galán, the Liberal candidate, former partner of Minister Lara Bonilla, and the favorite to win, was assassinated; then, on March 22, 1990, Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, the UP candidate, was killed; and on April 26, 1990, the victim was Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, one of the leaders of the M19 and candidate for the Democratic Alliance, ADM19, the political party created during a demobilization process that concluded a year earlier with a call for a Constitutional Assembly.

In the meantime, Los Extraditables fractured between Medellin and Cali. Competition for the supremacy in New York, new alliances with Mexican cartels, the opening of the European market after the fall of the Berlin Wall, experimentations with poppy for the processing of heroin, and Escobar’s authoritarian leadership all contributed to exacerbate tensions between the two groups.58 At this point, traffickers attacked not only the state and society but also each other, in a spiral of cruelty that included the setting of car bombs against public and private buildings. The truck bombing of the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) headquarters in Bogotá, on December 6, 1989, was one of the deadliest. It claimed fifty-two lives and injured a thousand.59

Unsurprisingly, the candidate who replaced Galán in the Liberal party ticket won the elections. With the full support of President Bush’s Andean Initiative, Cesar Gaviria (1990–1994) made the arrest of cocaine elites one of his three priorities. The other two priorities were to bring to fruition one of the most progressive Constitutional Assemblies in Latin America, in order to restore the power of the state in a country where its mere existence seemed to be questioned; and to implement a neoliberal agenda of privatizations, social rights cuts, and financial prerogatives for transnational capital (known as La apertura or the opening), in order to revitalize an economy that depended on coffee and cocaine exports.60 By the end of his first year, the intensification of narco-terrorism pushed President Gaviria to offer traffickers reduced sentences and benefits if they surrendered. Many did, but not the elite. They continued waging war until June 19, 1991, when the Constitutional Assembly voted against extradition.61 Hours later, and thanks to the mediation of the Catholic Church, Escobar and his closest subordinates entered in La Catedral, a high-security prison located in Escobar’s hometown of Envigado, south of Medellín.

Surrounded by luxury and privileges, Escobar and his acolytes ran their operations from jail. Business as usual included an escalation of the war against the Cali syndicate and a new internal conflict with their own security forces, represented by the Castaño brothers and their paramilitary armies, and the entrepreneurial wing, comprising several families of billionaires.62 When a conflict between one of these families and one of Escobar’s lieutenants turned La Catedral into a torture center and a mass grave, the Castaños and the Cali cartel joined forces and formed Los Pepes (Persecuted by Pablo Escobar).63 Los Pepes brought together all those who feared that Escobar’s violent methods were destroying the business for all. Under the Castaños’ leadership, Los Pepes secured the support of industrialists, politicians, and ranchers. Their strategy was based on the counterinsurgent theory practiced by the paramilitaries, which consisted of avoiding confrontations with the enemy and instead attacking the support network using techniques such as enhanced interrogations and the public display of tortured bodies. Their brand of terror was so effective that when Escobar escaped from La Catedral on July 23, 1992, after a government attempt to transfer him to another prison, official forces coordinated with Los Pepes under the table.64

Leading operations for the hunt for Escobar was the Bloque de Búsqueda (Search Bloc), a special police squad based in Medellín. They counted on the full support of the DEA, the CIA, and the Pentagon, and a stream of inside information from Diego Fernando Murillo, aka Don Berna, an enforcer for the Galeanos, one of the trafficking families that Escobar massacred while in prison, and who was now Los Pepes’s local boss.65 On December 2, 1993, one day after Escobar’s 44th birthday, this ensemble of legal and illegal forces followed the signal of a radio call to find the once-powerful man running barefoot on the roof of his hideout in a middle-class neighborhood in Medellín. Three shots, one to his head, ended the hunt.66

Plan Colombia: The Full Vicious Circle

With masses of people in Medellín’s metropolitan area mourning Escobar as their patron saint, the Gaviria and Clinton administrations celebrated the end of Colombia’s sorrows. However, in the years that all eyes were on El Patrón (The Boss), the Cali cartel consolidated its operations, cemented its relationship with the political class, and became a cocaine monopoly. Its four founding members, Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, José Santacruz, and Hélmer Herrera, looked for a peaceful solution to their criminal status. Through their franchises that extended to every single legal sector of the economy, they financed the coming presidential campaign. Their goal was to make sure than the next president was favorable to their plan of surrendering, laundering their capital, and starting anew.67

For the time being, their former Los Pepes partners, the Castaño brothers and Don Berna, also underwent key transformations. The killing in combat of Fidel, the oldest of the Castaño siblings, on January 6, 1994, pushed Carlos to assume the leadership under a more political style and a sense of historical duty.68 He used the new leverage constructed in the fight against Escobar to strengthen valuable links with state security forces and politicians, establish autonomy vis-à-vis cocaine traffickers, and consolidate the movement ideologically.69 In a parallel but interconnected manner, Don Berna picked up the pieces of the defunct Medellín cartel. He had learned from Escobar’s demise and did not challenge the state but worked with it instead. Through bribes and by keeping the peace among criminals and the urban insurgency at bay, Don Berna was left free to run Medellín’s underworld.70 He unified the surviving sicarios under a gang of gangs called La Terraza, worked as the conduit through which cocaine flowed toward US markets, and established paramilitary fronts in Medellín and the broader region of Antioquia.71

In just a year, Escobar’s death revealed itself to be insignificant in terms of ending Colombia’s drug wars. During 1994, the influence of the Cali syndicate in the political system became undeniable when Andrés Pastrana, presidential candidate for the Conservative party and son of former president Misael Pastrana, made public a series of tapes that proved a financial connection between his opponent in the Liberal party and Rodríguez Orejuelas. Called Proceso 8000, the series of accusations and denials against elected President Ernesto Samper (1994–1998) polarized the country, sent politicians to jail, and strained bilateral relationships with the United States.72 That same year illegal crops reached record highs.73 The neoliberal policies of Gaviria’s Apertura had accelerated the long-term decline of the countryside and contributed to the spread of illegal crops. Because new alliances with the Mexican cartels allowed Colombians to penetrate the US heroin market, cultivators produced poppy for the processing of the opiate in addition to coca for cocaine. And with bigger profits of yet another drug boom, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries strengthened their armies.

Pressured to show results, President Samper appointed reputed general Rosso José Serrano as chief of the Colombian National Police and charged him with the antinarcotics strategy. Under General Serrano’s command, the police arrested the four founding members of the Cali Cartel between 1995 and 1996—eventually, Herrera and Santacruz would be assassinated—and, in coordination with the armed forces, eradicated coca and poppy fields using aerial fumigations of glyphosate.74 But nothing was able to put a stop to what General Serrano called the cartelitos (baby cartels)—new, fragmented, and smaller trafficking organizations that emerged after the collapse of the Medellín and Cali cartels.75

In the face of the exorbitant growth of the drug economy and the political chaos of Proceso 8000, President Clinton decertified the country in the fight against narcotics for two consecutive years, starting in 1996, and the State Department canceled President Samper’s US visa. Estranged from Washington and swamped with judicial battles, the Samper administration fell short in confronting the paramilitary and guerrilla forces that used drug money to finance their quest for national hegemony.76 Now that Samper’s time was up, and his fierce opponent Andrés Pastrana led the polls, Washington was ready for a change of gear.

President Pastrana (1998–2002) promised during his campaign to tackle the triad of problems that grew during Samper’s administration, namely, the drug trade business, the internal conflict, and the economic recession.77 As soon as he was elected, he established peace talks with the FARC and demilitarized El Caguán, a forty-two thousand square kilometer zone—said to be the size of Switzerland—in the middle of Caquetá, in FARC’s historic territory. He then visited Washington to get the support for a Marshall Plan–like aid package in the eventual scenario of a successful peace process. In many ways, President Pastrana was responding to the cocaleros (coca growers), whose movement had gained momentum in recent years, beginning in 1996, when a massive mobilization of coca cultivators paralyzed the region to demand full incorporation into Colombian society as first-class citizens.78 But President Clinton was not willing to invest in a long-term gamble that did not offer rapid solutions.79 The kidnapping and killing by the FARC of three US activists of indigenous peoples’ rights on February 25, 1999, forced President Clinton to reconsider. Under the leadership of Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Clinton administration tinkered with Pastrana’s original plan and came up with a more aggressive strategy of gradual increase of technological, logistical, and military assistance to debilitate the insurgency that fed on the drug economy.80

Named Plan Colombia, the strategy offered more war to a country in search of peace. This new approach brought to full circle, and at a higher level of complexity, the underlying premises that for decades underpinned the country’s many wars, that is to say, the tensions between counterinsurgency and antinarcotics were finally resolved through the implementation of a general plan that worked as a feedback loop between the two. Plan Colombia built upon earlier rationales, from the “narcoguerrillas” discourse to Bush’s Andean Initiative, to identify a direct connection between insurgency and drug trafficking as the root cause of the country’s “failed state,” as the potential Balkanization of Colombia was understood in the political language of the time.81 The strategy, which was signed into law by President Clinton on July 13, 2000, was a synthesis of all the tactics that had previously failed: aerial eradication of coca and poppy fields, alternative development and crop substitution, interdiction of chemical precursors and seizure of final products, obstruction of transportation routes, and the dismantling of processing laboratories.82 Although it also included new areas of intervention, such as human rights monitoring and social development, 75 percent of US aid was in the form of military aid.83

The target area was the southeastern lowlands and the Amazonian basin, where FARC had its strongholds. Aware of the government’s parallel plan, FARC continued peace negotiations but also used Pastrana’s prerogatives to reinforce their war machine. They abducted survivors of military offensives as prisoners of war and implemented a new tactic called pesca milagrosa (miracle fishing), in which civilians were kidnapped at random checkpoints throughout the country. The demilitarized zone of El Caguán became their detention center, rearguard, and headquarters. In the face of their evident lack of investment in the peace process and their new mechanisms of intimidation, collection of economic resources, and political gains, urban Colombians lost the little support they had had for the FARC and protested in massive marches across the country. This loss of legitimacy for the guerrillas’ project became key after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when Washington turned its focus on FARC’s terrorism. Less than six months later, on February 20, 2002, President Pastrana broke off the peace process, hours after the FARC hijacked an airplane and kidnapped a senator, giving them until midnight to abandon El Caguán.

In the aftermath, the presidential candidate who united the reactionary forces that wished a military solution to Colombia’s quandary gathered momentum.84 The triumph of Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002–2010) changed the face of Plan Colombia for years to come. Although the strategy had failed in terms of drug eradication, it succeeded in modernizing the Colombian Armed Forces and debilitating the FARC politically. In this context, Uribe’s plan of inflicting a decisive military defeat seemed doable. In order to accomplish his agenda, Uribe appropriated the language and strategies of President Bush’s “war on terrorism,” blurred the lines between guerrillas and traffickers, and framed the long history of political conflict as a terrorist threat.85 With President Uribe, Plan Colombia (renamed in 2003 as Plan Patriota—Patriot Plan), fused counterinsurgency and antinarcotics in the fight against terrorism.

By contrast, the Uribe administration granted the paramilitaries political status and established peace talks with the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the organization that united all the paramilitary armies throughout the country. At this time, however, the Castaño brothers were absent—all of them had been killed. On July 15, 2003, the Uribe administration signed the Santa Fe de Ralito Agreement, an accord to negotiate the demobilization of paramilitary forces. The gradual process of disarmament started in 2003, with the powerful front that operated in Medellín under Don Berna’s command—who appropriately renamed himself Adolfo Paz (as in peace)—and ended in 2006, with a total of thirty-eight demobilized fronts.86 Two years later, on May 13, 2008, the reelected President Uribe ordered the extradition to the United States of fourteen paramilitary commanders, including Don Berna, citing a breach of the peace agreement and the commission of drug-related crimes while in jail.87 Their extradition diminished paramilitary commanders’ cooperation with ongoing human rights investigations in Colombia, and “severely curtailed access to remedies for Colombian victims.”88

In many ways, Pastrana and the FARC paved the way for the rise of Uribe and the forces he represented. Conversely, Plan Colombia under Uribe prepared the soil for the end of the FARC. Plan Colombia’s “push to the South,” as the military offensive in the southern regions of the country came to be known, forced the FARC to abandon their so-called “war of movements,” an ambitious strategy for the takeover of national power.89 Weakened from within after dozens of killings of commanders, desertions, arrests, and betrayals, the FARC observed the wave of leftist parties winning elections in South America, reconsidered its possibilities, and bet on the offer for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration that the new president, Juan Manuel Santos (2010–2018), offered them. Carried out between 2012 and 2017 in Havana, Cuba, the peace talks concluded with the dismantling of the FARC and the establishment of a transitional justice system and a truth commission.90 But in a polarized country, where the majority of the electorate rejected the peace process with the FARC, a crucial question remains: is this the end of Colombia’s multiple and overlapping wars or the beginning of a new cycle of terror and devastation?

Discussion of the Literature

Because the literature on Colombia’s drug wars is vast and diverse, and keeps growing, this article will only mention those pioneering works that have helped us see old problems under a new light.

Investigative journalists produced the inaugural texts. As the first witnesses of history, journalists have shed light on new developments, identified protagonists, denounced abuses and crimes, and warned about future dangers. Two of the pioneers are José Cervantes Angulo, with a book on the marijuana boom in the Caribbean coast, and Fabio Castillo, whose investigation on the so-called “cocaine cowboys” became an instant classic. The work of Germán Castro Caycedo offers invaluable reconstructions of specific events and characters, including Pablo Escobar, who Castro Caycedo had many opportunities to interview over the years. Mexican American journalist Alma Guillermoprieto published heartfelt chronicles of the most violent years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For more recent times, the books of Maria Teresa Ronderos as well as those by Juan Diego Restrepo are indispensable to understand the interconnections between the cocaine business and the paramilitary movement. Photojournalists have helped the public to connect visually and viscerally with victims and survivors of Colombia’s many conflicts. Stephen Ferry, Jesús Abad Colorado, Natalia Botero, and Albeiro Lopera are some of the few whose works have been edited in books.

Memoirs constitute another inaugural genre. Relying on highly subjective perspectives, authors have taken readers through their lived experience of war. One of the pioneers was American trafficker Max Mermelstein, who worked for the cartels in the late 1970s and early 1980s and published his story in Spanish in the early 1990s. More recently, the confessional books of Juan Pablo Escobar and Victoria Eugenia Henao, Pablo Escobar’s son and wife, respectively, have drawn international media attention in the context of the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Escobar’s killing.

Political scientists and economists were the first academics to address the drug trade and drug wars as subjects of scholarship. Their works on the macro-politics and macroeconomics of the business and associated violence have had the greatest influence on public policies. Ironically, one of the pioneers later became a historical actor, namely economist Ernesto Samper, who presented to the public the first study of the marijuana boom in the Caribbean coast, which his colleague Hernando Ruiz had redacted. Roberto Junguito and Carlos Caballero published the first economic theory on the drug business. Lawyers and economists Mario Arango and Jorge Child coauthored one of the first books on the cocaine traffickers’ class as a new elite. In the 1990s, Francisco Thoumi introduced a historical perspective to the economic analysis, publishing some of the most cited works on Colombia’s comparative advantages as the major center of cocaine production and commercialization in the Andes. For the last decade, Alejandro Gaviria and Daniel Mejía have offered figures and analysis on the different cycles of the business, as well as the successes and failures of antinarcotics campaigns.

On the political science front, international relations scholar Bruce Bagley pioneered the study of Colombia’s drug trade and wars as a hemispheric security issue, while Richard B. Craig was the first to shed light on the continuities between the Mexican and the Colombian cases as laboratories of the US-led “war on drugs.” Juan Gabriel Tokatlian has published influential essays on the implications of Colombia’s organized crime for the stability of inter-state relations in the Americas. And more recently, comparative politics scholar Angélica Durán Martínez has analyzed the rationality behind criminal brutality as a byproduct of the complex relationship between state power and criminal competition, while William Avilés has analyzed Plan Colombia in a comparative perspective with Plan Mérida in Mexico and how both plans have facilitated larger structural changes and helped advance the interests of transnational corporate capital.

Historical sociologists have also been at the forefront of the academic study of the drug trade and drug wars. Using qualitative methodologies, sociologists have identified the socio-economic and political factors that made the production and commercialization of drugs a viable and desirable activity. Pioneers are Álvaro Camacho Guizado, Darío Betancourt and Martha Luz García, and Alfredo Molano. While Camacho Guizado’s work examines the effects of the marijuana and cocaine economies in the political system, Betancourt and García’s work focuses on the elite sectors that collaborated with drug entrepreneurs, and Molano’s pays attention to the destitute classes that produced the drug commodities. Jaime Jaramillo, Leonidas Mora, and Fernando Cubides coauthored the first comprehensive analysis on the linkages between internal migration, coca booms, and the guerrilla movement. Ricardo Vargas has published groundbreaking studies on the environmental and social consequences of fumigations and alternative development. Alonso Salazar, former mayor of Medellín, conducted the most known research on the urban youth that comprised the unskilled labor of the cocaine industry. More recently, Gustavo Duncan has published incisive studies on the political culture of the drug lords, the synergies between them and the paramilitary leadership, and the roots of their political power.

Historians have contributed to the literature by seeking to elucidate how the coffee republic of the first half of the 20th century gave birth to the narcotics nations of the last half. Eduardo Saénz Rovner has woven together political and diplomatic history to explain what he calls the “pre-history of narcotrafficking,” that is, before the cartels took over. James Henderson has traced the transitions between the National Front, what he calls the “narcotics nightmare,” and the promise of change that President Uribe represented. Essays by Mary Roldán on Medellín’s transformation from a Catholic industrial haven to a cocaine dystopia, and by Forrest Hylton on Medellín’s longer history of contraband smuggling and violence, from colonial times to the new millennium, stand as the most lucid analyses on continuities and disruptions over the long term. Historical accounts on the country’s peripheral regions are less common and more recent additions. Lina Britto’s book on the marijuana boom in the Caribbean coast in the 1970s, and Paul Gootenberg and Liliana Dávalos’s edited volume on the cocaine economy of the Amazonian region are part of this new scholarship.

Anthropologists have studied the inner codes and political culture of the business and militarized state control. Maria Clemencia Ramírez has illuminated the ways in which the cocalero movement has constructed territories, recreated communities, and built a resistance in the Amazonian basin. Lesley Gill has produced an insightful ethnography on political violence in the Middle Magdalena valley, which provides context to the ways in which the paramilitary project and the cocaine business overlapped at local level. Michael Taussig, once an expert on shamanic and hallucinogenic cultures, has published intimate accounts on the disintegration of state and society in various localities in rural Colombia. Winifred Tate has deconstructed the values and fears that made the illegal drugs trade a national security threat that prompted the reorientation of the military and diplomatic bureaucracy and ultimately gave birth to Plan Colombia.

Last but not least, literary writers have taken inspiration in the news, the scholarship, and their own experiences to artistically represent the drug trade and wars. Journalist Juan Gossaín pioneered the genre with La mala hierba, a novel on the marijuana boom, which later became a successful telenovela.91 Years later, Laura Restrepo fictionalized the true events of a family war among marijuana traffickers in Leopardo al sol.92 But it was the cocaine wars of the 1980s and 1990s that were the most fertile sources of inspiration. Stories of adolescent sicarios became such a popular and profitable genre that critics coined the term sicaresca—as in picaresca, the Spanish baroque style. Víctor Gaviria, who is better known for his filmography, published one of the first books of the genre in the early 1990s under the title El pelaíto que no duró nada.93 Fernando Vallejo’s La virgen de los sicarios, a novel on a love affair between a writer and a sicario, whose devotion for the Virgin Mary helped him to accomplish his assignments, is perhaps the most famous example.94 More recently, Jorge Franco flipped the genre’s canon when he made a young woman the protagonist in Rosario Tijeras.95

Primary Sources

Most written sources are preserved in governmental archives in Colombia and the United States. In the United States, the most important repositories are the National Archives at College Park—the major facility of the National Archives and Record Administration of the United States, NARA—which keeps relevant files from the Department of State. The US Government Accountability Office is a trustworthy source of information on US investment in Colombia. Most of the reports are available online. For the work of the DEA and other US security agencies in Colombia, the best repository is the National Security Archives, NSA, a non-profit archival institution located in Washington, DC, which has successfully used the Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, to declassify documents. The presidential libraries of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton are also key; however, researchers need to consider that for the late 1980s and 1990s most documents are still classified or have been redacted. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, monitors illegal crops, and their reports can be found online. Finally, think tanks and foundations produce and collect valuable information on US drug policies in Colombia. The Washington Office for Latin American Affairs, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the Center for International Policy, Rand Corporation, the United States Institute for Peace, and InSight Crime are some of the most productive ones; they generally publish their papers online.

In Colombia, written sources are more scattered and less accessible. The Archivo General de la Nación in Bogotá has some materials in several fondos (the equivalent of record groups in US archives), but they only go until the mid-1970s. The Biblioteca de la Presidencia de la República holds more documentation for the 1980s and 1990s; however, most files are put under strict restrictions, and consultation is often impossible. For newspapers and magazines, the most important repositories are the Hemeroteca Nacional, and the hemeroteca (newspapers library) of the Biblioteca Nacional, both located in Bogotá. The Luis Angel Arango Library in Bogotá and its many venues throughout the country have collections of books, memoirs, short stories, and essays that can be read as primary sources, depending on the questions asked. The Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular, CINEP, in Bogotá has a formidable library on the socio-political conflict, including a collection on journalistic reports on the drug wars and other subjects. Corporación Región in Medellín has been publishing original research on many themes for decades, including the city’s drug wars, and made them available online.

Oral sources are indispensable. They are accessible in two main forms: in person and through judicial records. Given the security conditions in rural and urban areas that have been theaters of war, researchers should never go uninvited to avoid putting themselves and others at risk. Patient work to establish local contacts is required. Journalists and activists are usually willing to help researchers to identify storytellers, community organizers, teachers, and other leaders who are knowledgeable on local affairs and are willing to talk. The Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP, published a Manual de autoprotección para periodistas in Colombia (Guidelines for self-protection for journalists) that is very helpful. In terms of judicial records, the peace processes for the reintegration of illegal armed actors has produced volumes of information on the drug business and drug wars as part of the effort to understand the political and social conflict. The public records of Justicia y Paz, the law for the demobilization of the paramilitaries, are available at the different tribunals established throughout the country and remained unexplored for the most part. The news portal Verdad Abierta has studied some of these records and published revealing reports on them. The extradition to the United States of fourteen paramilitary commanders accused of cocaine trafficking is producing judicial records for the researchers of the future. Judicial records on the guerrillas, particularly the FARC, will be produced in the coming years as part of the implementation of the transitional justice system.

Further Reading

  • Arango, Mario, and Jorge Child. Narcotráfico, imperio de la cocaína. Medellín: Editorial Diana, 1987.
  • Avilés, William. The Drug War in Latin America: Hegemony and Global Capitalism. New York: Routledge, 2018.
  • Betancourt, Darío. Mediadores, rebuscadores, traquetos y narcos: Las organizaciones mafiosas del Valle del Cauca entre la historia, la memoria y el relato, 1890–1997. Bogotá: Ediciones Antropos, 1998.
  • Betancourt, Darío, and Martha Luz García. Contrabandistas, marimberos y mafioso: Historia social de la mafia colombiana, 1965–1992. Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores, 1994.
  • Bertram, Eva, et al. Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Britto, Lina. Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020.
  • Camacho Guizado, Álvaro. Drogas, corrupción y poder: Marihuana y cocaína en la sociedad colombiana. Cali: Universidad del Valle, 1981.
  • Castillo, Fabio. Los jinetes de la cocaína. Bogota: Editorial Documentos Periodísticos, 1987.
  • Castro Caycedo, Germán. En secreto. Bogota: Planeta, 1996.
  • Duncan, Gustavo. Los señores de la guerra: De paramilitares, mafiosos y autodefensas en Colombia. Bogotá: Penguin Random House, 2015.
  • Durán Martínez, Angélica. The Politics of Drug Violence: Criminals, Cops, and Politicians in Mexico and Colombia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Franco, Jorge. Rosario Tijeras. Bogotá: Plaza & Janés, 1999.
  • Gaviria, Alejandro, and Daniel Mejía, eds. Anti-Drug Policies in Colombia: Successes, Failures, and Wrong Turns. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2016.
  • Gaviria, Víctor. El pelaíto que no duró nada. Bogotá: Editorial Planeta, 1991.
  • Gootenberg, Paul, and Liliana Dávalos, eds. The Origins of Cocaine: Colonization and Failed Development in the Amazon Andes. New York: Routledge, 2018.
  • Gossaín, Juan. La mala hierba. Bogotá: Plaza & Janés, 1981.
  • Gutiérrez, Francisco, María Emma Wills, and Gonzalo Sánchez, eds. Nuestra guerra sin nombre: Transformaciones del conflicto en Colombia. Bogotá: IEPRI, Grupo Editorial Norma, 2006.
  • Hylton, Forrest. “The Cold War that Didn’t End: Paramilitary Modernization in Medellin, Colombia.” In A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence during Latin America’s Long Cold War. Edited by Greg Grandin and Gilbert M. Joseph, 338–370. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
  • Jaramillo, Jaime Eduardo, Leonidas Mora, and Fernando Cubides. Colonización, coca y guerrilla. Bogotá: Alianza Editorial Colombiana, 1986.
  • Kalmanovitz, Salomón, Ricardo Vargas, and Camilo Borrero, eds. Drogas, poder y región en Colombia. Bogotá: CINEP, 1994.
  • Kirk, Robin. More Terrible than Death: Violence, Drugs, and America’s War in Colombia. New York: Public Affairs, 2009.
  • Livingston, Grace. Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy and War. London: Latin American Bureau, 2003.
  • Molano, Alfredo. Aguas arriba: Entre la coca y el oro. Bogotá: El Áncora Editores, 1990.
  • Paley, Dawn. Drug War Capitalism. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2014.
  • Pearce, Jenny. Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth. London: Latin American Bureau, 1990.
  • Ramírez, María Clemencia. Between the Guerrillas and the State: The Cocalero Movement, Citizenship, and Identity in the Colombian Amazon. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Restrepo, Juan Diego. Las vueltas de la oficina de Envigado: Génesis, ciclos de disputa y reorganización de una empresa criminal. Medellín: Ícono Editores, 2015.
  • Restrepo, Laura. Leopardo al sol. Bogotá: Grupo Editorial Norma, 1993.
  • Roldán, Mary. “Cocaine and the ‘Miracle’ of Modernity in Medellín.” In Cocaine, Global Histories. Edited by Paul Gootenberg, 165–182. New York: Routledge, 1999.
  • Rosen, Jonathan D. The Losing War: Plan Colombia and Beyond. New York: State University of New York, 2014.
  • Sáenz Rovner, Eduardo. “Los colombianos y las redes del narcotráfico en Nueva York durante los años 70.” Innovar 24, no. 53 (2014): 223–234.
  • Salazar, Alonso. Born to Die in Medellin. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990.
  • Tate, Winifred. Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats: U.S. Policy Making in Colombia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.
  • Thoumi, Francisco. Economía política y narcotráfico. Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores, 1994.
  • Thoumi, Francisco. Illegal Drugs, Economy and Society in the Andes. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
  • Tokatlian, Juan G., and Bruce M. Bagley, eds. Economía y política del narcotráfico. Bogotá: Ediciones Uniandes/CEREC, 1990.
  • Vallejo, Fernando. La virgen de los sicarios. Bogotá: Santillana, 1994.
  • Vargas, Ricardo. Fumigación y conflicto: Políticas antidrogas y deslegitimación del Estado en Colombia. Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores, Transnational Institute, Acción Andina, 1999.
  • Washington Office for Latin American Affairs. La aspersión de cultivos de usos ilícitos en Colombia: Una estrategia fallida. Washington and Bogotá: WOLA and Instituto de Estudios para el Desarollo y la Paz, 2008.


  • 1. Stephen R. Platt, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age (New York: Knopf, 2018).

  • 2. Alexander Cockburn, “The Addictive War: The War on Drugs Is Working So Well, the US Government Has No Reason to Give It Up,” Canadian Dimension 32, no. 5 (September 1998): 9–12.

  • 3. Richard Nixon, “Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control,” The American Presidency Project, June 17, 1971 .

  • 4. Richard Craig, “Operation Intercept: The International Politics of Pressure,” The Review of Politics 42, no. 4 (October 1980): 556–580; and Kate Doyle, “Operation Intercept: The Perils of Unilateralism,” National Security Archive .

  • 5. Marco Palacios, Between Legitimacy and Violence: A History of Colombia, 1875–2002 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

  • 6. Charles Bergquist, Ricardo Peñaranda, and Gonzalo Sánchez, eds., Violence in Colombia: The Contemporary Crisis in Historical Perspective (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1992). See also John Coatsworth, “The Roots of Violence in Colombia: Armed Actors and Beyond,” ReVista: Harvard Report on the Americas 2, no. 3 (Spring 2003): 3–7.

  • 7. Bruce Bagley, “Colombia and the War on Drugs,” Foreign Affairs 67, no. 1 (Fall 1988): 70–92; Bruce Bagley, Drug Trafficking, Political Violence and U.S. Policy in Colombia in the 1990s (Miami: University of Miami, 2001); and Jonathan D. Rosen, The Losing War: Plan Colombia and Beyond (New York: State University of New York, 2014).

  • 8. US Government Accountability Office, Plan Colombia: Drug Reduction Goals Were Not Fully Met, but Security Has Improved; U.S. Agencies Need More Plans for Reducing Assistance (Washington: GAO, 2008); and Forrest Hylton, “Plan Colombia: The Measure of Success,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 17, no. 1 (Fall–Winter 2010): 99–115.

  • 9. Michael Kenney, From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007), 103.

  • 10. César Ayala, Resistencia y oposición al establecimiento del Frente Nacional: Los orígenes de la Alianza Nacional Popular, ANAPO, Colombia, 1953–1964 (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 1996).

  • 11. Palacios, Between Legitimacy and Violence, 189.

  • 12. Richard Craig, “Colombian Narcotics and United States-Colombian Relations,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 23, no. 3 (August 1981): 243–270.

  • 13. Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); and Paul Gootenberg, “The ‘Pre-Colombian’ Era of Drug Trafficking in the Americas: Cocaine, 1945–1965,” The Americas 64, no. 2 (2007): 133–176.

  • 14. For the Narcotics Coordinator see Craig, “Colombian Narcotics.”

  • 15. Lina Britto, “A Trafficker’s Paradise: The ‘War on Drugs’ and the New Cold War in Colombia,” Revista Contemporánea 1, no. 1 (2010): 159–177.

  • 16. Lina Britto, Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020.

  • 17. Eduardo Sáenz Rovner, “Estudio de caso de la diplomacia antinarcóticos entre Colombia y los Estados Unidos (gobierno de Alfonso López Michelsen, 1974–1978),” Documento Escuela de Administración y Contaduría 13 (July 2012): 2–38.

  • 18. Robin Kirk, More Terrible than Death: Violence, Drugs, and America’s War in Colombia (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 61.

  • 19. “El escándalo de la droga: La conexión colombiana,” Alternativa 158 (April 1978): 2–4. See also Julio César Turbay Ayala, Memorias de un cuatrenio, 1978–1982, vol. 5 (Bogotá: Editorial Presencia), 6–7.

  • 20. Decree 2144 de 1978

  • 21. Britto, “A Trafficker’s Paradise.”

  • 22. Sáenz Rovner, “Estudio de caso,” 12.

  • 23. José Cervantes Angulo, La noche de las luciérnagas (Bogotá: Plaza & Janés, 1980), 225–226, and 246.

  • 24. Jesse Kornbluth, “Poisonous Fallout from the War on Marijuana,” The New York Times, November 19, 1978 .

  • 25. Turbay Ayala, Memorias de un cuatrenio, 64.

  • 26. Mary Roldán, “Cocaine and the ‘Miracle’ of Modernity in Medellín,” in Cocaine, Global Histories, ed. Paul Gootenberg (London: Routledge, 1999), 165–182; and Forrest Hylton, “The Cold War that Didn’t End: Paramilitary Modernization in Medellin, Colombia,” in A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence during Latin America’s Long Cold War, ed. Greg Grandin and Gilbert M. Joseph (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 338–370.

  • 27. Darío Betancourt and Martha Luz García, Contrabandistas, marimberos y mafioso: Historia social de la mafia colombiana, 1965–1992 (Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores, 1994); and Álvaro Camacho Guizado and Andrés López Restrepo, “From Smugglers to Drug Lords to Traquetos: Changes in the Colombian Illicit Drug Organizations,” in Peace, Democracy and Human Rights in Colombia, ed. Christopher Welna and Gustavo Gallón (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 60–89.

  • 28. Paul Eddy, Hugo Sabogal, and Sara Walden, The Cocaine Wars (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988).

  • 29. María Clemencia Ramírez, Between the Guerrillas and the State: The Cocalero Movement, Citizenship, and Identity in the Colombian Amazon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 43.

  • 30. Jaime Eduardo Jaramillo, Leonidas Mora, and Fernando Cubides, Colonización, coca y guerrilla (Bogotá: Alianza Editorial Colombiana, 1986), 57–59.

  • 31. Juan Guillermo Ferro and Graciela Uribe, “Las marchas de los cocaleros del departamento de Caquetá, Colombia: Contradicciones políticas y obstáculos a la emancipación social,” Cuadernos de Desarrollo Rural 49 (2002): 59–84.

  • 32. Palacios, Between Legitimacy and Violence, 199.

  • 33. Steven Dudley, Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia (New York: Routledge, 2004), 50–51.

  • 34. Gustavo Duncan, Los señores de la guerra: De paramilitares, mafiosos y autodefensas en Colombia (Bogota: Penguin Random House, 2015), 276.

  • 35. Kirk, More Terrible than Death, 104. See also Carlos Medina Gallego and Mireya Téllez Ardila, La violencia parainstitucional, paramilitar y parapolicial en Colombia (Bogota: Rodríguez Quito Editores, 1994).

  • 36. Lesley Gill, A Century of Violence in a Red City: Popular Struggle, Counterinsurgency, and Human Rights in Colombia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 89.

  • 37. Palacios, Between Legitimacy and Violence, 200–203; and Forrest Hylton, Evil Hour in Colombia (London: Verso, 2006), 69–73.

  • 38. Mauricio Romero, Paramilitares y autodefensas, 1982–2003 (Bogotá: EIPRI, Editorial Planeta, 2003), 124–140.

  • 39. Ricardo Rocha García, La economía colombiana tras 25 años de narcotráfico (Bogotá: UNDCP, Siglo del Hombre Editores, 2000).

  • 40. Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez, “Las FARC-EP: ¿Repliegue estratégico, debilitamiento o punto de inflexión?,” in Nuestra guerra sin nombre: Transformaciones del conflicto en Colombia, ed. Francisco Gutiérrez, María Emma Wills, and Gonzalo Sánchez (Bogotá: IEPRI, Grupo Editorial Norma, 2006), 184.

  • 41. Ana Arjona, Rebelocracy. Social Order in the Colombian Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 84–110.

  • 42. Hylton, Evil Hour, 75.

  • 43. Andrés Peñate, “El sendero estratégico del ELN: Del idealism guevarista al clientelismo armado,” in Reconocer la guerra para construir la paz, ed. Malcolm Deas and María Victoria Llorente (Bogotá: Ediorial UniAndes, Editorial Norma, 1999), 53–98.

  • 44. Hylton, Evil Hour, 68–69.

  • 45. Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 97–98; and Winifred Tate, Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats: U.S. Policy Making in Colombia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 47–54.

  • 46. James D. Henderson, Colombia’s Narcotics Nightmare: How the Drug Trade Destroyed Peace (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), 53–59; and Kirk, More Terrible than Death, 86–87.

  • 47. Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and Jane Hunter, The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era (Boston: South End Press, 1987), 99–100. See also John Dinges, Our Man in Panama: The Shrewd Rise and Brutal Fall of Manuel Noriega (New York: Times Book/Random House, 1991).

  • 48. Eddy, Sabogal, and Walden, Cocaine Wars, 299–300; and Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen, Kings of Cocaine: Inside the Medellin Cartel (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 173–174.

  • 49. Gustavo Duncan, Más que plata o plomo: El poder politico del narcotráfico en Colombia y México (Bogota: Peguin Random House, 2014), 263–266.

  • 50. Jorge Aníbal Gómez Gallego, José Roberto Herrera Vergara, and Nilson Pinilla Pinilla, Informe final de la Comisión de la Verdad sobre los hechos del Palacio de Justicia (Bogota: Editorial Universidad del Rosario, 2010), 215; and Javier Darío Restrepo, Avalancha sobre Armero: Crónicas, reportajes y documentos de una imprevisión trágica (Bogota: El Áncora Editores, 1986).

  • 51. Palacios, Between Legitimacy and Violence, 209–210.

  • 52. Tatiana Matthiesen, El arte político de conciliar: El tema de las drogas en las relaciones entre Colombia y Estados Unidos, 1986–1994 (Bogotá: Fescol, Fedesarrollo, CEREC, 2000), 168–171.

  • 53. Alonso Salazar, Born to Die in Medellin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990).

  • 54. Arlene B. Tickner, “U.S. Foreign Policy in Colombia: Bizarre Side Effects of the ‘War on Drugs,’” in Peace, Democracy and Human Rights in Colombia, ed. Christopher Welna and Gustavo Gallón (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 312.

  • 55. Scott B. MacDonald, Mountain High, White Avalanche: Cocaine and Power in the Andean States and Panama (New York: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1989), 128–131.

  • 56. William L. Marcy, The Politics of Cocaine: How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Created a Thriving Drug Industry in Central and South America (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010), 205.

  • 57. Daniel Pécaut, Crónica de cuatro décadas de política colombiana (Bogotá: Editorial Norma, 2006), 399–407.

  • 58. Ron Chepesiuk, Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel (Wrea Green: Milo Books, 2003), 129–150.

  • 59. Alma Guillermoprieto, The Heart that Bleeds: Latin America Now (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).

  • 60. Julieta Lemaitre, La paz en cuestión: La guerra y la paz en la Asamblea Constituyente (Bogotá: Ediciones Uniandes, 2011).

  • 61. Andrés López Restrepo, “Narcotráfico, ilegalidad y conflicto en Colombia,” in Nuestra guerra sin nombre: Transformaciones del conflicto en Colombia, ed. Francisco Gutiérrez, María Emma Wills, and Gonzalo Sánchez (Bogotá: IEPRI, Grupo Editorial Norma, 2006), 420–426.

  • 62. Duncan, Más que plata o plomo, 268–270.

  • 63. Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 165–200.

  • 64. Duncan, Los señores de la guerra, 311–312. See also Bowden, Killing Pablo; Chepesiuk, Drug Lords; and Mauricio Aranguren Molina, Mi confesión: Carlos Castaño revela sus secretos (Bogotá: Oveja Negra, 2001).

  • 65. Hylton, “The Cold War that Didn’t End,” 354–358.

  • 66. Bowden, Killing Pablo, 239–254.

  • 67. Bowden, Killing Pablo, 270; and Chepesiuk, Drug Lords, 202–215.

  • 68. Aranguren Molina, Mi Confesión; and María Teresa Ronderos, Guerras recicladas: Una historia periodística del paramilitarismo en Colombia (Bogota: Aguilar, 2014).

  • 69. Duncan, Los señores de la guerra, 313–314.

  • 70. Duncan, Más que plata o plomo, 297.

  • 71. Hylton, “The Cold War that Didn’t End,” 355; and Duncan, Los señores de la guerra, 314.

  • 72. Tickner, “U.S. Foreign Policy in Colombia,” 316–317.

  • 73. See tables of cultivated areas in Rocha García, La economía colombiana, 38–47.

  • 74. María Clemencia Ramírez, Kimberly Stanton, and John Walsh, “Colombia: A Vicious Circle of Drugs and War,” in Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy, ed. Coletta A. Youngers and Eileen Rosin (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005), 105.

  • 75. Álvaro Camacho Guizado, “Colombian Institutions and Narcotics Trafficking: Mutations and Politics,” in Anti-Drug Policies in Colombia: Successes, Failures, and Wrong Turns, ed. Alejandro Gaviria and Daniel Mejía (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2016), 229.

  • 76. For the AUC (Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), see Aldo Civico, The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 92–100. For the FARC, see Victoria Bruce, Karin Hayes, and Jorge Enrique Botero, Hostage Nation: Colombia’s Guerrilla Army and the Failed War on Drugs (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

  • 77. Rosen, The Losing War, 24.

  • 78. Ferro and Uribe, “Las marchas de los cocaleros,” 66–69.

  • 79. Ingrid Vaicius, “Una perspectiva hacia el entendimiento del Plan Colombia,” in El Plan Colombia y la intensificación de la guerra: Aspectos globales y locales, ed. Jairo Estrada Álvarez (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2002), 21.

  • 80. Diana Marcela Rojas, “Estados Unidos y la guerra en Colombia,” in Nuestra guerra sin nombre: Transformaciones del conflicto en Colombia, ed. Francisco Gutiérrez, María Emma Wills, and Gonzalo Sánchez (Bogotá: IEPRI, Grupo Editorial Norma, 2006), 48–50. See also Jairo Estrada Álvarez, “Plan Colombia: Debates, tendencias recientes, perspectivas,” in El Plan Colombia y la intensificación de la guerra: Aspectos globales y locales, ed. Jairo Estrada Álvarez (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2002), 31–47. .

  • 81. Doug Stokes, America’s Other War (New York: Zed Books, 2005), 100; and Pizarro Leongómez, “Las FARC-EP,” 192–193.

  • 82. Daniel Mejía, “Anti-Drug Policies under Plan Colombia,” in Anti-Drug Policies in Colombia: Successes, Failures, and Wrong Turns, ed. Alejandro Gaviria and Daniel Mejía (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2016), 52–53.

  • 83. Ingrid Vaicius and Adam Isacson, Plan Colombia: The Debate in Congress (Washington, DC: Center for International Policy, December 2000).; and Tate, Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats, 57–80.

  • 84. Hylton, Evil Hour, 109–110.

  • 85. Rosen, The Losing War, 54.

  • 86. Jacobo Grajales, “El proceso de desmovilización de los paramilitares en Colombia: Entre lo político y lo judicial,” Desafíos 23, no. 2 (2011): 149–196.

  • 87. Deborah Sontag, “The Secret History of Colombia’s Paramilitaries and the U.S. War on Drugs,” The New York Times, September 10, 2016.

  • 88. International Human Rights Law Clinic, Truth Behind Bars. Colombian Paramilitary Leaders in U.S. Custody. Berkeley: University of California, School of Law, 2010.

  • 89. Pizarro Leongómez, “Las FARC-EP,” 193–200.

  • 90. Andrés Bermúdez Liévano, ed., Los debates de la Habana: Una mirada desde adentro (Bogotá: Institute for Integrated Transitions/Fondo de Capital Humano, 2018).

  • 91. Juan Gossaín, La mala hierba (Bogotá: Plaza & Janés, 1981).

  • 92. Laura Restrepo, Leopardo al sol (Bogotá: Grupo Editorial Norma, 1993).

  • 93. Víctor Gaviria, El pelaíto que no duró nada (Bogotá: Editorial Planeta, 1991).

  • 94. Fernando Vallejo, La virgen de los sicario (Bogotá: Santillana, 1994).

  • 95. Jorge Franco, Rosario Tijeras (Bogotá: Plaza & Janés, 1999).