Why the War on Cocaine Still Isn’t Working

U.S. policy continues to harm Colombia while failing to prevent immense quantities of cocaine from reaching American soil.

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Starting in the 1970s, Pablo Escobar bribed and murdered his way to running the world’s most powerful cocaine cartel, dominating smuggling routes from South America into the United States. He didn’t merely order the killing of rivals. He attempted to assassinate a politician by bombing a commercial flight he was expected to take, killing all 107 passengers on board. He bombed a city block in Colombia’s capital, killing 63 people and injuring 1,000. He financed a paramilitary assault on the Palace of Justice, the Colombian Supreme Court building, killing nearly 100 people, including 12 justices. He terrorized the country’s population, spreading corruption, mass shootings, torture, rape, mutilated corpses, extortion, and more.

Little wonder that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spent so much time and energy to catch him. Yet when Escobar was killed in 1993, rival cartels simply took over. Colombia remains a mass exporter of cocaine, and the U.S. continues to wage a costly war on drugs in the country.

Is there any prospect of that war succeeding? In hopes of answering that question, I talked with the foreign correspondent and documentary filmmaker Toby Muse, who moved to Colombia in 2000 to cover the country’s civil war. At the time, a huge U.S.-backed effort called Plan Colombia invested billions of dollars in a massive effort to cut coca production by half in five years. It failed.

Muse followed the civil war through the 2016 peace process with the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which surrendered its coca territory. The Colombian government was supposed to step in and provide basic law and order, education, and health care. But the government dropped the ball. New narco-militias got to FARC’s old territory first and started fighting to control the coca supply. Today, more coca is grown in Colombia than ever before.

Now Muse has published Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels―from the Jungles to the Streets, a book that traces one kilo of cocaine from the mountains and jungles of Colombia to the U.S., still the world’s largest cocaine market. His reporting strongly suggests that America’s ongoing approach is a failure.

This is an edited, condensed version of our conversation.

Conor Friedersdorf: How has Colombia’s cocaine trade changed since the U.S. started fighting it?

Toby Muse: The age of the old-style trafficker ended. At the time of Pablo Escobar, Medellín was one of the most dangerous cities on Earth. Those days are long gone. The homicide rate has come down in part because it’s understood that if your face is on the front page for acts of public violence and you’re a household name, the countdown to your demise has begun. We have one old-style trafficker in Colombia. He runs the Gulf Clan. The CIA is working with Colombia to take him down. Everyone in the underworld says it's a matter of time before he’s killed or captured. We understand that he has this miserable life hiding in the jungle. He's one of the richest men on the continent but travels on the back of a donkey to a different shack every night. He has all this money and nothing to spend it on. Cocaine really enjoys a joke at times.

Now we have new traffickers called the Invisibles, women and men—mainly men, it has to be said—who opt for a low profile. The rules of cocaine used to be: Live like a lion for a day, not like a sheep for 100 years. Die before you’re 30 or 40. These Invisibles want to break the rules of cocaine, to be businessmen who get the riches from the cocaine trade and retire out of it.

Friedersdorf: In your book, you trace the journey that a single kilo of cocaine takes today. Where does it begin?

Muse: Cocaine starts as a leaf on a bush. In the book, I was reporting from northeastern Colombia by the border with Venezuela in a zone called Catatumbo––the name means “Land of Lightning” in the old indigenous language, so called because there are more lightning strikes there than anywhere else, deep rumbling electrical storms. The journey to the coca farm that I visited took me six hours from the nearest town. Three hours in a taxi, an hour in a truck, then a privately operated ferry service, basically five barrels with planks of wood on top, then an hour on a motorbike. On a map, I had traveled just 30 kilometers. Imagine a farmer trying to take a ton of pineapple to market along that route. No, instead they grow coca. But, unlike the Invisibles running the show, they’re not getting rich. One man working in a coca lab estimated that farmers were making $200 profit for every two-and-a-half month harvest.

These people are so abandoned by the central government. They are by themselves. In the small settlement I visited, the farmers got together to impose a toll on the dirt track to raise money to build a school. It took them three years. Finally, they built that school themselves, not the government. But where was the money coming from? Coca. Cocaine. So you see how embedded it is. There is no law or order except what is imposed by narco-militias who are always in the background.

Friedersdorf: Is that why you described today’s farmers as more desperate to get out of coca than you’d ever seen?

Muse: In every village, it's always the same stories. Ask the elders, “Do you remember who was the first person to sell coca here?” They always do. A person will come back from a coca zone, decide to grow coca, and suddenly they’re buying the first truck in the area. Neighbors notice they’re doing well. Slowly, other people start planting coca. Eventually, you have to start importing other crops to get by. That raises their price. And suddenly everyone starts getting pushed to grow coca.

The culture of coca fuels nihilism. You had these dignified towns of cattle ranchers or coffee growers. Coca takes over. Then social decay comes. If you’ve seen the TV show Deadwood, you’d understand these towns. There’s a gold-rush quality to them. You have huge waves of migrants who aim to sell goods to the farmers. In some parts of the country, you have prostitutes who have chartered planes for market day because they know farmers will be getting paid. People are not saving. Spend today because you’ll earn more tomorrow. Some 60-year-old farmers would leave their families to run away with the 19-year-old prostitute. And once a town dedicates itself to coca, one of the narco-militias will come and take it over. What farmers hate most is a rivalry. A group of guerrillas comes by and asks for some water. The farmer has to give it to them. Two days later, the rival militia comes and says, “You've been aiding our enemy; you have to pay.”

Friedersdorf: Why haven’t efforts to eradicate the coca farms succeeded?

Muse: Bogota is culturally different from the rest of the country, and the central government has never been able to control its remote territories. There are these treacherous mountains and jungles.

In the past, I've been in massive valleys where everything you can see is coca. You don't see that anymore. Farmers think that if they grow too much in one place, it will be too tempting for the police. These farmers grow just one or two hectares of coca. And if police come in and rip it out, the farmer is just going to replant. A year later, the police may rip it out again. But that isn’t easy. Police used to oversee aerial-fumigation missions. Then there were reports that the herbicide being used to kill the coca might cause cancer. Now they do manual eradication. Fly laborers in, rip out all of the crops by hand. It’s labor-intensive.

Friedersdorf: You experienced the danger of one of those missions.

Muse: The manual eradicators are dropped off in remote areas by helicopters and guarded by the police. They establish a base and rip up all the coca within three kilometers over a few months. So the narco-militias know which fields will be next. At night they send people in to litter the coca fields with IEDs. Those cost a dollar. There are horrendous images of policemen and laborers who are killed, maimed, or mutilated by the IEDs. You’re told in the helicopters to tread in the footsteps of the person ahead of you, don’t touch anything shiny, look out for fresh earth, and make sure to stay away from piles of leaves. But you’re dropped off at night in a clearing in the middle of nowhere. You don’t know who is out there in the dark, ready to open fire. So you run toward the foliage. I was treading on piles of leaves, wherever, desperate to have some kind of protection from the cover of the jungle if the narco-militias were out there.

Friedersdorf: So these farmers harvest coca leaves, turn them into coca paste, and how do they transport them from these very remote areas to market?

Muse: We’re talking about a kilo or two. They can just put it in a backpack and hop on a motorbike. So the narco-militia will receive all these individual kilos and move them to a laboratory. Now the scale is industrial. One laboratory that I saw produced four tons of cocaine a month. Then the traffickers decide: Is this going to the domestic market or abroad?

Friedersdorf: Anyone who has watched TV about the drug trade is familiar with the creative ways the narcotic is smuggled: hidden in shipping containers, put into balloons that are swallowed by human mules, carried in tunnels.

Muse: Cocaine is almost an organism. There is constant evolution. When someone tries to contain her, she just adapts, growing stronger in response to every attack. It’s a dark joke among Colombians—they say, “Imagine if all these inventive gangsters dedicated themselves to using this ingenuity for good. You could cure cancer.” But no, they’re constantly inventing new ways to transport cocaine. And one that stands out is narco-submarines, or semi-subs actually. The ones we’ve seen so far still have two or three pipes that go above the surface to bring in the oxygen and expel the exhaust. But when you speak to the navy or police off the record, when you grab a beer with them, they say that if proper submarines aren't out there yet, they'll be there shortly.

You can go to this naval base on Malaga Bay and see some captured semi-subs. At the high end, I've seen these things built 50 or 60 feet long. And they can carry eight or nine tons of cocaine. To build one, the starting cost is $1 million to $2 million. They bring components from the legal economy to these jungle factories where they are produced and then sent into the Pacific.

The crew might be four people. I interviewed a man who described the journey as nightmarish. You’re underwater for eight, nine, 10 days. A constant roar of the engines. You’re sweating. There’s a bucket for excrement that everyone uses. It’s a hard job. The pay is $20,000 and they always get half up front, in case they die on the way or are captured, so their families have something.

Friedersdorf: You spent time aboard a U.S. Coast Guard ship that patrols the Pacific in hopes of intercepting smugglers using boats as well as these semi-subs. What are those missions like?

Muse: After 9/11, there was a move to militarize the Coast Guard. And part of its job is to patrol one of the loneliest spots on the planet, the eastern Pacific Ocean––and it’s the biggest cocaine corridor. It's so vast that it's almost like four or five police cars patrolling the continental United States. They're making these busts of three, four, six tons of cocaine, more than any other U.S. agency. One guy related a story to me on the ship. He has a buddy back home on a police force, and they get excited when they seize one kilo of cocaine. We were laughing because there were three tons of seized cocaine behind us. They really feel they're performing their part. They say, “Every time we seize a kilo, it's a kilo that doesn't get through to the home market.”

Friedersdorf: Is that true, or do the cartels just send more?

Muse: No one really has trouble getting cocaine in Europe or the United States. And all of these countries are announcing record seizures. Last year in America, on one boat just off Philadelphia, there were 20 tons of cocaine. The U.K. is seizing more than ever. Germany. Costa Rica.

With the Coast Guard, they are very proud of the work they’re doing and they should be. These are three-month missions that they're out there on. I don’t want to say it’s hopeless, because they’re working very hard. But I do think that it is incumbent on the U.S. to rethink its drug policy because up to now, everything in the drug war has been that the drug war is failing, so the solution must be just a bit more drug war. The cliché is what’s the definition of madness? Doing the same thing and expecting different results. We’ve been trying to kill and destroy cocaine militarily. And thousands of lives have been lost. This business runs on demand, and until the U.S. and Europe get their act together and reduce demand, cocaine will keep being produced.

Friedersdorf: Is legalizing drugs the answer?

Muse: Former President Juan Manuel Santos described the drug war as “riding an exercise bike”—you pedal and pedal and sweat and sweat, and you look down and realize you haven’t moved an inch. He said the world needed to rethink the drug, and suggested he would be open to discussing legalization. Unfortunately, the rest of the world ignored him, to the international community’s shame.

I don't know if that's the solution, because people are worried about the availability of these drugs that are very harmful. Proponents of legalization have to reckon with the fact that they are not winning the argument. You’ve seen people’s faces when you say, “Oh, I believe that cocaine and heroin should be legalized.” But I’m reporting that what we are doing is not working.

We’ve already been given the example of Prohibition. I don’t think Al Capone was a particularly remarkable man. But Prohibition made him a hugely wealthy man. When you look at people like El Chapo, they’re not remarkable men either. What they are is vicious, they’re mean, they’re ambitious, they’re violent, they’re ruthless, and they’re merciless. Those are the qualities you need to thrive in the underworld. There’s been a movement among certain people to tell the cocaine users in Europe and the United States, “Look at the damage your habit is doing.” And consumers in rich countries are the reason that today’s cocaine trade exists. But I don't look back at Prohibition and say the villain of that era was the working man or working woman illegally getting a drink at the end of the week. I look back and say it was a series of policies that were implemented that created that chaos. I think we’re living through something similar.

Friedersdorf: If wealthy countries don’t change, is there any hope for Colombia?

Muse: It is hard to find people in Colombia who truly believe that cocaine can be eradicated. I would ask this of the police: “Will you see a country free of cocaine?” And they confessed, it is difficult to imagine.

But this is an amazing country. The warmest people on the planet, views that will take your breath away. You can go to the deepest rain forest, hang out with the indigenous [people] there, learn from them, see crystal-clear seas and beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, and everything in between. Yeah, there’s some street crime, but tourists are not going to accidentally stumble on the sorts of places I write about. Just follow the locals’ recommendations. Colombians are so protective of foreigners; they really feel they’ve been stigmatized like they’re all narco-terrorists. That is far from the truth. A tiny minority of the country is involved in cocaine. And many Colombians feel as if they are trapped due to policies from their own government and foreign governments.

No one suffers from the drug war more than Colombia. When Nixon declared the War on Drugs, it was abstract, like the War on Poverty. In Colombia it is real. There are men and women dying for this every day. I wanted to say: Wake up. Because of policies in Europe and the United States, men and women in this poor country that deserve to get ahead are stuck because cocaine is always there.