Life in the Cocaine State
by Paulo Morcira Leite
Vela newsmagazine, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Feb. 25,
(from World Press Review magazine)
(Americans enjoying a fairly stable society often imagine
that life in the world's more troubled places offers an unending
diet of strife and danger. In some countries, this is the case,
but as this article on Colombia makes clear, the reality is often
more complex than we might imagine.)
Anyone who believes Colombia to be a country full of brigands
and muggers needs to visit Bogota. People stop at red lights with
their car windows open, something that is an invitation to theft
in some cities, and women walk down the street wearing gold necklaces.
At the beginning of this decade, Bogota was a slaughterhouse.
To force the government to pass a law that would prohibit their
extradition to the United States, the drug barons turned the country
into hell. They paid to have politicians murdered, business people
kidnapped, and newspapers bombed. Three candidates for president
were assassinated, along with two cabinet members. The violence
has moved into the interior, now fed by conflicts between former
leftist guerrillas, paramilitary units, and the army. The most
ambitious drug lords are dead; a few are in prison. But Colombia
continues to suffer the tragedy of the cocaine business.
Most people think of cocaine as something that destroys young
lives and ruins neighborhoods. In Colombia, where cocaine consumption
is insignificant, the problem is the wealth itself. "lt.
is a new gold rush," says Salomon Kalmanovitz, head of the
central bank, "with the advantage of demanding less investment
and providing quicker returns."
The raw material for a kilo of cocaine costs about $750 in
the countryside, but this becomes $135,000 when it reaches the
retail market in New York. With the drug injecting $2.5 billion
into Colombia every year, it provides fuel for business and investment.
Colombia was the only Latin American nation not to have a currency
crisis in the 1 980s.
But this drug money contaminates good investments. Traffickers
create phony businesses that compete with traditional firms and
smuggle in goods at prices honest merchants cannot afford. Drugs
make land more expensive, and money laundered into real estate
makes for $2-million apartments in Bogota. "From an overall
perspective, the advantages and disadvantages cancel each other
out," says Kalmanovitz, recalling that Colombia's economy
grew faster during the pre-cocaine era.
With their resources concentrated on fighting drugs, the police
have let petty criminals run free. With 89 murders per 100,000
people, Colombia continues to be the most violent country in the
world, though this figure was even worse in 1990.
President Ernesto Samper remains in office despite not being
very convincing in his defense against charges of taking campaign
money from the drug barons. As much a nationalist as Bill Clinton
is a feminist, Samper has managed to make the investigation of
him into a question of national sovereignty.
But despite all this, Colombia has completed four decades
of stability and growth, with an average growth rate of 4 percent-the
best on the continent. It enjoys 90 percent literacy, and 650,000
students graduate from its universities every year. Surrounded
by democratically unstable neighbors, Colombia has been politically
stable for 40 years without either coups or generals as presidents.
It has a modest per-capita income of $2,300, the largest emerald
mines on the planet, and respectable production of oil and gold.
Its coffee is famous for its flavor, and its cut flowers also
The country's healthy economy explains the interest of international
investors, who put in $5 billion last year- the second-highest
figure for the continent. "People are aware of our problems,
but investors are professionals: They will be the first to leave
if they do not see good returns on their money," says Jeronimo
Castro, director of Coinvertir, an office set up to attract foreign
One advantage in attracting investment is Colombia's educated
work force. Another is its economic history, without catastrophic
inflation or severe recessions. The obvious fear is for the safety
of executives, who live very discreetly. Many multinationals sell
their products in Colombia under phony names because they fear
that a well-known brand will inspire guerrilla sabotage. Executives
of corporations travel followed by a van full of bodyguards.
Devout Catholics, the Colombians who fill churches on Sunday
are anonymous heroes who go on with their lives while enduring
a history of blood and fury. In conflicts over land, paramilitary
groups carried out 70 massacres last year-a 30-percent increase
over 1996. Although lower than it once was, the total number of
people killed in political confrontations continues to be high-in
the first nine months of 1997, 840 people died. Every year, thousands
of farmers are expelled from the land they have been cultivating.
"The paramilitaries knocked down the door of our home and
killed my husband and my sister's husband," says Elizabeth
Contreras, 21. "They shot me three times."
When you turn on the TV, you will see commercials offering
$1.5 million for the capture of such people as Manuel Marulanda
Velez, who commands the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
With 10,000 members, it pays its bills by robbing plantation owners
and by selling private security services to cocaine growers. Another
prominent guerrilla leader is Father Perez, a Spanish missionary
priest whose Army of National Liberation specializes in extorting
money from big corporations after kidnapping executives or dynamiting
Colombia is a mirror, with a time delay, for U.S. drug policies.
When the U.S. began making moves toward decriminalizing drugs
during the late '70s, the Colombians did the same. Fifteen years
after the American government transformed the war on cocaine by
bringing in the military, the Colombian army began acting under
American supervision-and Americans also monitored the police.
With their youth threatened, it is natural for the Americans
to promote a war without quarter. The price, for Colombia, is
a demoralized army, a guerrilla movement with a regular source
of income, and paramilitary groups acting with impunity.
For those interested in utopias, there is a debate in Colombia
on convincing farmers to plant something other than coca. No one
knows how much this might cost-for no one knows of any crop as
lucrative as coca.
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