In May, Colombian soldiers raided a cave near the Pacific coast and found 15 tons of cocaine ready to be loaded onto a squadron of speedboats for transport north. It was the biggest take ever in Colombia, worth $400 million on the American street, and the latest in a slew of busts this spring and summer. In the past several months, Colombian authorities have stumbled on multi-ton stashes and intercepted drug-loaded speedboats on a weekly basis. Military officials report that they are on pace to seize 60 percent more cocaine than they did last year.
But the increase is hardly cause for drug warriors to celebrate. Seizures are not up because of a new interdiction strategy. They are up because a recent Colombian law, designed to entice right-wing paramilitary forces to lay down their arms, is giving some of the world’s biggest drug lords a chance to dump their wares, cash in, and launder their fortunes while avoiding what they fear most: extradition to the United States. The so-called Justice and Peace Law is meant to defuse Colombia’s drug-fueled civil war, but it is turning into a windfall for the country’s cocaine traffickers and the cocaine market in the United States and around the world.
The biggest players in the Colombian drug industry are right-wing paramilitary commanders—heavily armed thugs, often with ties to the army and the government, who have used drug profits to finance private armies and then used those private armies to protect their business and enrich themselves. The paramilitaries were formed in the 1980s as private armies to protect Colombia’s landed elite from the marauding guerrillas of the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. But as their ranks swelled toward 20,000, the pull of the drug trade quickly took over from their original mission.
The paramilitaries now control more than half of Colombian drug exports—some $4.5 billion of the almost $10 billion of cocaine that hits the American street every year. (They also account for well more than half of the 10,000 civilian deaths in Colombia the past decade.) Many top commanders are drug lords who have donned an ideological label out of political convenience. The man behind the 15-ton stash seized in May, for example, is a paramilitary commander who goes by the name “Don Diego.” He runs the Norte del Valle cartel—Colombia’s biggest trafficking organization—and appears a few notches below Osama Bin Laden on the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted” list. Several others, including a former Pablo Escobar associate named “Adolfo Paz,” have been indicted in U.S. courts for dispatching boatload after boatload of cocaine to American shores. The State Department includes the paramilitaries on its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Despite all this, President Álvaro Uribe has staked his political fortunes on demobilizing the paramilitaries and bringing them back into the legal fold. Uribe has sold the amnesty offered by his Justice and Peace Law—which recently passed Colombia’s congress and is awaiting his signature—as a first step toward ending the civil war. Unfortunately, the law proposes to deliver peace by forgoing justice almost entirely.
The paramilitary leadership has always made it clear that its cooperation with Uribe’s plan is contingent on getting off lightly. “If disarming means a humiliating surrender to justice,” one commander put it in a barely veiled threat earlier this year, “we will opt to stay out in the heat of the war and will do so to the death.” Uribe’s government has acquiesced. The law puts little pressure on paramilitary fighters to confess their crimes and does nothing to ensure that their leaders surrender their ill-gotten fortunes. An underfunded and understaffed government investigative unit has only a month to look into thousands of atrocities, and prison sentences are limited to eight years for the worst violations and almost nothing for the rest. Most important, the law classifies paramilitary crimes in a way that shields perpetrators from extradition—which means that American courts will never get a crack at them.
Since justice Colombia-style often means a few years of R&R on a ranch surrounded by gun-slinging associates and beautiful women, a chance to escape American jurisdiction is a huge boon for major traffickers. So, it’s no surprise that they’re eager to take Uribe up on his offer. A few weeks before he was gunned down outside a supermarket by former allies last year, a paramilitary commander known as Rodrigo 00 told me that drug lords are seizing the opportunity “to achieve impunity for them and their riches” and “turn Colombia into a ‘narcodemocracy.’ ” According to the U.S. ambassador in Bogotá and a classified Colombian government report, many drug lords who were not already affiliated with the paramilitaries “have bought their way into senior paramilitary positions” to take advantage of the amnesty.
In preparation for getting in on the deal, the drug lords seem to be emptying out their warehouses—selling off stockpiles of cocaine so they have enough cash on hand to go legit for a few years without giving up their fabulous wealth and swank lifestyles. These stockpiles, by all accounts, are massive. They have allowed traffickers to insulate their business and maintain a steady flow of imports to the United States and Europe regardless of how many coca plants South American soldiers and American defense contractors are killing with machetes and herbicide at any given time. On a recent visit to Bolivia, the head of South America operations for the U.S. Agency for International Development said that traffickers have so much cocaine on hand they could keep exports constant for a year and a half even if production stopped altogether.
The recent slew of seizures is a good sign of a sell-off: According to a basic law of drug-war economics, every increase in the amount of cocaine seized reflects a more-or-less proportionate increase in the amount of cocaine shipped. An American anthropologist doing fieldwork in southern Colombia reports additional evidence that the cocaine market is glutted: Peasant producers of coca paste (the base material for cocaine) are having trouble finding buyers for their product—an indication that so much cocaine is being shipped from warehouses that traffickers don’t need to buy paste to manufacture more. Over the past few months, paste prices in Putumayo, the heart of Colombian coca country, have fallen between 10 percent and 40 percent.
In the past decade, Washington has poured billions of dollars into Colombia with the ostensible purpose of fighting the drug trade. Meanwhile, the street price of cocaine has steadily declined, from around $250 a gram in the late 1980s to well under $100 today. Now Congress is debating whether to help finance Uribe’s demobilization effort, despite concerns that it’s a lucrative retirement plan for traffickers. Whatever the United States decides, drug lords are already taking advantage of Uribe’s amnesty, and their sell-off will mean an even sharper drop in the price of a gram. Cokeheads should stock up now, though. Prices will soon rise again as a new crop of traffickers comes to take the place of the old.