Life in the Cocaine State

by Paulo Morcira Leite

Vela newsmagazine, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Feb. 25, 1998

(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 provide income.

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 capital.

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 facilities.

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.

Life and death in Third World