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Colombian Cocaine Cartels: Lessons From the Front

NCJ Number
Trends in Organized Crime Volume: 3 Issue: 3 Dated: Spring 1998 Pages: 13-29
R J Nieves
Date Published
17 pages
A historical account of Colombian organized crime and the development of cocaine cartels is presented.
The cocaine market was small in the early 1970s, but the market began to change in 1972 when Colombians took the cocaine business away from the Chileans. At the time, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was poorly organized to deal with the threat from international organized crime. By the late 1970s, cocaine shipments of 50 to 100 kilos were routine, and it was becoming clear the Medellin and Cali cartels from Colombia were well-established in New York City and Miami. The real impetus for increased national focus on the cocaine problem in the United States came less from Colombia, however, than from the significant increase in drug-related violence and the emergence of crack as the drug of choice. By the 1980s, large cocaine shipments and seizures in the United States were commonplace. At the same time, Columbia was being pressured by the United States to extradite drug lords and turn them over to the United States for trial. Despite concerted efforts against the cocaine cartels, they had consolidated their power bases in several U.S. cities by the late 1980s. Cartel leaders employed public relations techniques to offset adverse publicity and promote a more benign reputation, while DEA continued operations against the cartels. Key targets for intensified investigation were the drug production and manufacturing infrastructure and chemicals required for cocaine production. DEA developed the Kingpin strategy in the early 1990s, and significant accomplishments included $210 million in drug proceeds seized worldwide, 713 significant drug traffickers arrested, 235 vessels seized (boats, trucks, cars, and aircraft), and hundreds of successful raids in locations throughout the world. Lessons learned from efforts to curb Colombian cocaine cartels are discussed with respect to international strategies, the investigation of organized criminal groups, the incarceration of cartel leaders, the political influence of cocaine cartels, and the use of technological advances by drug traffickers to evade detection and capture.