Between the Lines: The Failed Drug Policy Behind the Distorted Portrait of Colombian Cocaine Empire

It might be that the stories behind cocaine production and distribution fit in the prime-time-perfect-formula of “sex, drugs and rock and roll”. In addition, the gunshots, the violence, the bombs. The – also – perfect fitting location of Colombia, characterized by perpetuated stereotypes of a mysterious region, full of superstitions, heavy jungles and warm Caribbean beaches in the unexplored south of the American continent. And Latinas.

[Originally published in Mundus Collection 2017]


“This is grade-A. 100% pure Colombian cocaine, ladies and gentlemen. Disco shit. Pure as the driven snow” – said Johnny Depp with a seventies’ junky look, after sniffing a line of coke in some sort of basement with a few old friends.

The iconic scene from the 2001 movie, ​Blow​, in which Depp played George Jung, a cocaine smuggler known as ​El Americano, ​is one of the hundreds of references to Colombian drug cartels and to the supremacy of drug lord Pablo Escobar that have been made by Hollywood. The year before, Brendan Fraser was turned into a Colombian drug dealer, resembling Pablo Escobar, after wishing to the devil to be a rich man in the comedy ​Bedazzled.

But these are not the first representations of the Colombian Cocaine Empire on the screen. Chuck Norris’ ​Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection (1990) shows the aggressiveness and power of South American drug kingpins controlling the flow of cocaine to North America. In 1994, Donald Moffat, as President Bennett, told James Cutter, his National Security Advisor, that Colombian drug cartels represented a ​”clear and present danger” to the U.S., in the movie named by that exact quote.


But it was the new millennium the one that marked the beginning of an era – still ongoing – in which Colombia is condemned to be top-of-mind when speaking about cocaine. Nowadays, there is even a whole television series dedicated to drug lord Pablo Escobar’s life, Netflix production “Narcos”; hip hop singer Wiz Khalifa visited Escobar’s grave in Medellín, the kingpin homeland; Escobar’s ​sicario​, John Jairo Velásquez a.k.a. ​Popeye is a writer, YouTube superstar and consultant in the making of his own film after spending 23 years in prison.

It might be that the stories behind cocaine production and distribution fit in the prime-time-perfect-formula of “sex, drugs and rock and roll”. In addition, the gunshots, the violence, the bombs. The – also – perfect fitting location of Colombia, characterized by perpetuated stereotypes of a mysterious region, full of superstitions, heavy jungles and warm Caribbean beaches in the unexplored south of the American continent. And Latinas.

A ​reloaded​ prime-time-perfect-formula

Narcotrafficking has provided for years a source of inspiration to producers, very profitable. From the series ​Miami Vice (1984 – 1989) to a more recent one, ​The Wire (2002 – 2008), both of them categorized in the genre ​crime drama​, “the war on drugs” script has not only amazed the audiences for its creative narrative but also has been a money-making machine.

So the puzzle is solved. Isn’t it?


The relation between the U.S. and Colombia is almost bicentennial. Started in 1822, a few years after Colombian independence from Spain, but since 1971, when former U.S. president Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs and proclaimed that “public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse”, the all-out offensive strategy of the North American country involved military operations in Colombia as part of the efforts for interdiction and eradication of cocaine crops.

And Nixon was right. Drug abuse is the public enemy number one in the U.S., which has historically been the country with more consumers in the world. Based on the latest World Drug Report, released last year by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, that shows data from 2014, 18.3 million people over the world are cocaine users and “North America has been the world’s largest cocaine market for years”. According to the Cocaine Signature Program of DEA, more than 90% of the cocaine trafficked to North America originates in Colombia.

Cocaine production in Colombia has been highly linked to cocaine consumption in the U.S., even when there is no real evidence about the impact of coca leaf cultivation fluctuations on the number of coke users in North America. On the other hand, the same UNODC 2016 report stated that, while there has been a net 30% increase in global cocaine use from 1998 to 2014, “growth in users is attributable to population growth”. This means that the increase of cocaine users is directly proportional to the general population and not to the hectares of crops.

Nevertheless, the myth of the direct impact of the offer on the demand for cocaine is still strong and it is constantly replicated by the media. Earlier in March of this year, the Washington Post published an article headlined “American cocaine use is way up. Colombia’s coca boom might be why”. On it, their Latin American correspondent Nick Miroff argues that the increase on cocaine crops in Colombia due to the suspension of glyphosate aerial spraying since 2013, “the boom is starting to appear on U.S. streets”.

While the first part of the statement is well documented by authorities and researchers that have provided evidence on the impact of switching from aerial to manual eradication of coca leaf crops in Colombia, the alleged cocaine “boom in the U.S. streets” is still just a common assumption. The director of the Anti-Narcotics Colombian Police, General José Ángel Mendoza, acknowledged that the consequences of the suspension of spraying with glyphosate due to the probability that the substance is carcinogenic “are not at all favorable” for Colombia. He emphasized on the great effort that Colombian Police and other institutions make in order to favor the international community but recalled that “just as we make the effort to reduce supply, they at a world level, must also seek to reduce the demand”.

In agreement with General Mendoza, Colombian sociologist Fabián Sanabria, former director of the Sociology Faculty of the National University of Colombia, qualified North American society as “tremendously hypocritical, punishing the producers and not the consumers who are actually the North Americans”. Sanabria added that “in that sense, the fight against drugs has been a failure: Colombia has put the dead, also the murderers, it must be said, but not necessarily the fault is only of the producers but also a great responsibility relies on the consumers”.


But billions of dollars have been injected by the U.S. into this fight against drug trafficking in Colombia, particularly to the eradication of illicit crops. The most important intervention, after the contribution of two DEA agents on the hunting of Pablo Escobar that ended in the drug lord’s death in 1993, is probably ​Plan Colombia.

Plan Colombia is an aid package, originally estimated on USD$7,5 billion announced in 1999, mainly directed to the military force and the National Police to combat drug cartels. The implementation of the strategy – with 71% of the budget focused on military training and intervention – started in 2001 and celebrated 15 years of operation in 2016 with a meeting between Barack Obama and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos.

During the “celebration”, ​Plan Colombia was described as successful and as a “very useful and effective instrument”, in Santos words. Nevertheless, analyst, journalists and scholars have gathered enough evidence regarding the great failure and the side effects of this strategy, including the intensification of violence in Colombia over the years.

In an investigation published last year in the Social Justice Journal, named “The Mass Incarceration of Nations and the Global War on Drugs: Comparing the United States’ Domestic and Foreign Drug Policies”, the author Daniel Patten explains in detail the real effects and underlying goals of the U.S. with Plan Colombia: ​“the U.S. government has ‘incarcerated’ the country of Colombia with the justification of drug trafficking, much like US prisons have incarcerated US citizens on drug charges”. Patten argues that through ​Plan Colombia, the U.S. mainly sought to contain the insurgence of the anti-imperialist and leftist guerrillas, more specifically the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces – FARC, and the National Liberation Army – ELN, also – and conveniently – involved in drug trafficking, just like domestic drug policies allowed them to maintain under control particular population groups like immigrants and African-Americans.

Current BBC News correspondent in Colombia, Natalio Cosoy, published an article at the time of the Obama – Santos meeting, in which pointed out eight “unexpected consequences” on ​Plan Colombia: ​more cocaine, more victims, human rights violations, surge of illegal mining, the threat of criminal gangs, soldiers turned mercenaries, a non-exportable model and influence over peace processes.

But the strong critiques have not stopped the U.S. government from providing more military aid to Colombian authorities. General Mendoza, in command of Colombian Anti Narcotics Police, explained that still now they send to the U.S. each year around 1,000 men, out of 7,500 that belong to his department, to be re-trained on the war on drugs: “many are the resources that are received from the international community, not only economic and tactical means, also elements to work at the technological level”, Mendoza assured.


“In the United States, the Mafia makes witnesses disappear so they can’t testify in court. In Colombia, Pablo Escobar made the whole court disappear”. The voice that narrates this terrifying story, the one that leads Netflix original series ​Narcos, is Boyd Holbrook’s, who plays DEA agent Steve Murphy, the main character of the show.

The real Steve Murphy posed in 1993 next to Escobar’s corpse, covered in blood, on top of a roof in a wealthy neighborhood in Medellín. Nobody knows if Pablo Escobar shot himself in the right ear, as his son Sebastián Marroquín has publicly stated, or if he was killed by Colombian policemen or DEA agents in a crossed fire, as the official reports declared.

The only well-known fact about Escobar’s death is that he would have preferred “a tomb in Colombia than a jail in the United States” because it was his most popular saying. But the price on admitting that “the greatest and most dangerous drug kingpin of history” died under his own law, that he did what he wanted until the end, that both nations, Colombia and the U.S. – especially the last one – had failed on the hunting, is simply too high. Probably not as high as recognizing a bigger failure, the one on the war on drugs.

According to Steven Cohen, New-York-based, North American journalist, who lived two years in Medellín and has observed and researched Colombian narco-culture closely, “we [the U.S.] have to tell these stories to resolve the contradictions; we have to look at that moment, that was the great success of the war on drugs, to feel calm and comfortable with the way we are leading the war on drugs now”. He believes that a television series like ​Narcos, ​that looks like innocent entertainment and that also reflects “a lack of commitment to reality that is very blatant”, has “important political repercussions” thanks to imperialist and colonizing cultural and historical processes.

And he is not the only one who thinks so. “Is U.S. Influence Dwindling In Latin America? Citizens’ Perspectives” is an extensive analysis of the Latin American Public Opinion Project ​Americas Barometer 2014 survey. On it, the author Dinorah Azpuru assures that “beyond institutional influences, throughout the years the U.S. has attempted to influence Latin American countries through soft power measures”. Azpuru adds that citizens perceive influence by a foreign country “more directly through products they buy, programs or movies they watch”.

Julián Quintero, CEO of the Corporation Social Technical Action (ATS for Acción Técnica Social​) that works for the reform of drug policy in Colombia, has a similar interpretation of Wiz Khalifa’s recent and very controversial visit to Escobar’s grave. Quintero points out the marketing strategy behind the event that gave the artist a lot of free press but highlights the gesture as a way of protesting against the current drug policy model: “is an act of resistance, an act of rebellion against a policy that does not work, a policy of prohibition, persecution and is claiming to the institutions and to the government more practical options, more realistic, more modern”, he explains.

Thus, it makes sense that the peaks in the emergence of pop culture’s portraits of Colombian drug empire correspond to significant moments of the U.S. war on drugs: the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993; the beginning of the implementation of ​Plan Colombia ​in 2001​; ​and the present, when the war on drugs policy is becoming obsolete.


While western pop industry looks backward and perpetuates myths that justify the U.S. failed drug policy and the military interventions in Colombia in the name of the war on drugs – and at the expense of all Colombians reputation abroad -, the world is looking forward.

Responsible drug use, risk reduction, harm mitigation and the rights of users of psychoactive substances, are slowly but strongly entering the international agenda that is replacing the old war on drugs one.

According to the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2016, from the U.S. Department of State, “Colombia’s new counter-drug strategy highlights increased focus on a public health model based on demand reduction and treatment programs, and by reducing domestic consumption through strengthening the institutional capacity of the government, promoting healthy lifestyles, preventing initial drug use, reducing the negative health and social effects for current users, and improving access to treatment for those suffering from substance use disorders”. Decriminalization is the key concept.

Activists like ATS Corporation have a very clear view of the future of Colombian drug issues, facing the post-conflict era. Their project ​”Regulated Coke, Guaranteed Peace” is probably the best example of a proposal based on cocaine regulation/legalization as the only path for eliminating drug smuggling: “the illegal cocaine market is the main threat to sustainable and long-lasting peace in Colombia”, claims their project that invites the international community to stop ignoring the problem and delaying the debate.

Graffiti in the Calle 26 Avenue in Bogotá: “Regulated cocaine, guaranteed peace”.

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