Lately there has been a fascination with the history of cocaine production, most notably with the Medellin Cartel and the Colombian Cocaine Trade. This is largely due to the popularity of shows like Narcos on Netflix that portray the rise of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. While television shows like this portray a pop culture twist on the drug trade during Escobar’s rule, many don’t touch on the state of the drug trade now. Let’s take a look at a brief overview of the Medellin Cartel and then explore what has happened to the cocaine trade since then.
The Medellin Cartel came to prominence in the 1970s under the command of Pablo Escobar with the support of people like Carlo Lehder, the Vasquez brothers, and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. These men started a cartel that would change the face of the War on Drugs. At their peak they brought in $60 million a day in drug sales and are estimated to have killed over 110,000 people in their reign. The drug base was generally brought in from Bolivia, processed in Colombia, and then smuggled by plane and boat into the southeastern United States. The Medellin cartel retained their control in country by bribing officials, combating the leftist guerrilla forces, and through huge infrastructure projects to help portray themselves as the good guys to local communities. Controlling roughly 80% of the global cocaine production at their height, it was a crippling blow when Pablo Escobar was killed and the cartel crippled in 1993.
After the collapse in power of the Medellin Cartel, their longtime rival the Cali Cartel began to step into their place. The Cali Cartel did not have the far reaching powers that the Medellin did. The Cali Cartel began to use Mexican criminal to smuggle the drugs through Latin America and into the US across the Mexican border. This would be the beginning of the Mexican cartels we see today as the face of the War on Drugs. The Cali Cartel was not as powerful or altruistic to the locals as the Medellin and so, they lost a large portion of the cocaine production. The Cali Cartel quickly faded from significance and was severely weakened by Colombian government operations with the support fo the US government. In their absence the Mexican traffickers began to form their own cartels to produce and smuggle the drugs, the FARC also picked up a significant amount of the cocaine production in Colombia, but they do not traffic the drugs. The FARC simply sells to the Mexican cartels.
This shift in power from Colombian cartels to their Mexican traffickers formed the Mexican Drug Cartels of today: the Sinaloa Federation and the Los Zetas Cartel. These two cartels are constantly at war and have turned parts of Mexico into war zones. Mexico has replaced Colombia as the battleground of the War on Drugs. The Mexican cartels choose to use the violence and fear coined by the Medellin Cartel, without the altruistic projects and community support, to maintain their power in Mexico. The face of the drug war has changed from Pablo Escobar to Joaqin “El Chapo” Guzman. Just recently El Chapo escaped prison by simply walking out through a massive tunnel dug underneath his prison cell.
Drug trafficking is still a major problem for the United States government. In 2014 it was reported that Americans spent over $100 million on illegal substances mostly marijuana, cocaine, meth, and heroin. The War on Drugs has led to thousands of incarcerations in the United States and massive amounts of public spending on prison populations and rehabilitation centers for addicts. In recent years, Middle Eastern groups such as the Taliban have entered the drug trade through poppy production in Afghanistan. With Mexican and Colombian Cartels and now Middle Eastern terrorist organizations, the drug traffickers of the world are growing more bold, stronger, and more widespread than ever before.