The drug trade in Colombia: What’s it like?

“Lots of my friends were murdered when I was younger. Lots of them.” Javier* leans in closer and raises an eyebrow. “If you meet someone from Cali and they tell you they have no connections with the drug trade, they’re lying. Every family is connected to drugs in some way, whether it’s small or large.”

Javier and his girlfriend Maria* were hosting us on Airbnb while we were in Cali, Colombia. As our first stop into Colombia, I’d been interested in finding out whether all the bad press about Colombia and its drugs was true.

Cristo Rey cross Cali Colombia Double-Barrelled Travel

A lonesome cross stands at the top of a hill overlooking Cali

My curiosity often triumphs over my (lack of) subtleness and I’d began asking probing questions about the country’s drug trade and Javier was happy to answer most of them.

I’d felt comfortable bringing out the big questions when Javier had casually mentioned his neighbour had been shot dead a year ago by a drug cartel. I seized this openness and jumped in with two feet, asking never-ending questions.

The Cali Cartel

The Cali Cartel was at its height in the early 1990s after Pablo Escobar, drug lord and leader of the Medellin Cartel, was killed following an 18 month man hunt involving the US Joint Special Forces Operations Command working alongside the Colombian government.

Many of those in the Cali Cartel fed information to the police for lenient sentencing and it’s thought much of this information helped lead to Escobar’s death.

Church above San Antonio Cali Colombia Double-Barrelled Travel

A church overlooks the San Antonio district of Cali

Javier says many of his friends didn’t even realise they were part of the Cali Cartel to begin with.

“Many of my friends didn’t know what they were getting into until it was too late,” Javier says. “They were just making money selling marijuana – that’s the drug it all started with in Cali – then all of a sudden they were helping sell cocaine.” Javier looks at me intensely. “It all got too big, too quickly. And then before they knew it they were in over their heads. No one knew it was going to get that bad.”

The Cali Cartel was bringing in an estimated US$7 billion of revenues a year. Cocaine was a serious, and lucrative, business.

The effects of the drug trade

Walking around Cali’s richest neighbourhoods, I’m surprised at how modern and wealthy everything is. In my mind I had associated the drug trade with slums, but this isn’t the case at all.

Drug manufacturing and its related sales pump a lot of money into the local economy and this cash can be seen in Cali’s high rise apartment buildings, fancy boutique stores and expensive restaurants.

Wealthy neighbourhood Cali Colombia Double-Barrelled Travel

A wealthy neighbourhood in the centre of Cali

Although the Cali Cartel doesn’t exist any more (at least not on the scale that it once was), Cali’s rich neighbourhoods are still squeaky clean and free of crime.

The irony of Colombia having a bad reputation for drug production is that it’s actually Peru that produces the most coca leaves in the world, and the US, Brazil and the UK that snort the most white powder.

Nearly all Colombians don’t touch the drug – many of the locals are scarred from years of war and are anti-drugs (only 0.72% of the population has tried cocaine) – and it’s not produced in the quantities it formerly was.

Yet the reputation still proceeds them.

What the government has done to end the cartels

There’s no doubt the current President, Juan Manuel Santos, has done a lot to help improve Colombia and move it away from its dirty drug name.

Javier tells me that seven years ago Colombians were too scared to drive their cars out of the city in case they ran into a road block run by a drug cartel. People were getting kidnapped for ransoms and if anyone crossed a cartel they’d often pay with their lives. Colombians were – understandably – scared.

Santos helped to rid much of the country of the cartel’s crime (mainly by hunting down and killing or arresting the drug lords) and it’s now relatively safe to drive around the country without a care.

Drug related violence has halved in the last 10 years throughout Colombia, and dropped below that of countries like Honduras, Jamaica, El Salvador, Venezuela, Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago.

There’s no doubt Colombia is still dangerous in some parts – just like most countries are – but the crime is much lower than it once was.

The war on drugs didn’t come without a cost, however. Drug traffickers over the years have killed five Colombian Presidential candidates, 11 Supreme Court Justices, more than 3,000 members of the political party Union Patriótica, and assassinated countless police officers, judges and witnesses in retaliation.

Javier is happy the current and past Presidents fought against drugs but when I ask him if there’s still a lot of corruption going on between the police and the cartels, he nods his head vigorously.

“Some of these drug lords that have been ‘caught’,” Javier mimes the word ‘caught’ in quotation marks with his fingers, “are only serving seven years jail.” He sighs with frustration. “And I’m talking about drug lords who have killed thousands of people – getting just seven years! Some will be out next year. It’s messed up.”

Javier goes on to say that even the President isn’t immune from corruption. “Santos’ head of security is currently serving time in a US prison for drug-related crime. That doesn’t make the President look too innocent to me,” he says.

Garden San Antonio Cali Colombia Double-Barrelled Travel

A peaceful garden in a gallery / cafe in San Antonio – a wealthy neighbourhood in Cali

Freeing Colombia of its drug-ridden culture

There’s no easy solution to the drug manufacturing problem in Colombia.

With a corrupt police force that’s apparently easily bought for its silence, drug lords can still get away with their crime. And if you’re earning thousands from drug manufacturing each month, where’s the incentive to stop? When the average monthly wage in Colombia is a measly $700 a month, it’s easy to see how drug production seems so attractive.

“It all comes down to education,” Javier says. “If we can teach the kids at school that getting involved with drugs isn’t an option – that a good education is the way to go – then we can help the younger generation move away from the mindset.”

But this education doesn’t come without its risks. “It’s hard to teach this though. I mean, some of the parents are involved in the trade themselves and it’s not the sort of stuff they want their children to hear.”

If all you know is the drug trade then presenting other less lucrative options isn’t going to be the path the masses choose.

While much of the focus is on Colombia sorting itself out, it’s important to remember the countries that consume the drugs should be held equally responsible for the problem.

Because without the demand there wouldn’t be a supply.

The US is the largest user of illegal drugs in the world, with one in six having snorted coke, and the UN has called for cocaine consuming countries like it – mainly those in Europe and North America – to take on their responsibility to reduce the demand.

I have to agree with the UN in that there are limits to what the Andean governments in South America can do if the consumption of cocaine continues to remain high in the West.

The cocaine issue is one that needs to be tackled on both the supply and demand sides, but only time will tell if the eradication, or at least the lowering, of the production and consumption of cocaine is something that can be achieved.

The future of Colombia is brighter, but still uncertain

Javier and I climb up to the top of a hill that overlooks Cali. The sun is blinding and it’s swelteringly hot. A Christo Rey statue stands at the peak, and we joke that we could be in Rio.

Cristo Rey statue Cali Colombia Double-Barrelled Travel

The Cristo Rey statue overlooking Cali

A moment later, Javier lowers his tone of voice as he points to the slums in the distance. “This is where the poor people live. On the outskirts of the mountains. They squat out there.” He points in a different direction. “And out there is where many of the drug lords live in their large mansions.”

The divide between the rich and the poor is striking. I think about it for a moment and wonder where I’d rather be – dealing drugs to the masses and living in my mansion, or living an honest life in a slum?

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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About the author

Carmen has been nomadic since May 2013 and the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel. She loves experiencing new cultures and learning new languages. She is having the most fun when skiing down a mountain, scuba diving in the Caribbean or curled up with a good book.

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