DEA Part II: The Colombian Cocaine Cartels
Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.
Illustration by Dana Rose, Mine Studios
Last spring, it was my pleasure and privilege to interview former U.S. Drug
Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, Larry McElynn, and share my account of those conversations—Larry McElynn’s Stories from the DEA, in CH2’s May
issue. This past October, Larry introduced me to several of his former
colleagues at the Association of Former Federal Narcotics Agents (AFFNA)
annual conference, held at Hilton Head’s Westin Resort. This second part of a
three-part series taken from my interviews with those outstanding people
takes a look at DEA’s battle to dismantle the infamous Colombian cocaine
cartels in the 1980s, with perspectives from Bob Nieves, who served as DEA’s
Director of Major Investigations during much of that time. Many thanks to
Larry, Bob, Jack Lawn, Richie Fiano, John Costanzo, and Chuck Gutensohn for
In 1975, President Gerald Ford’s Domestic Council Drug Abuse Task Force issued a White Paper addressing drug abuse in America. The White Paper stated: “Cocaine…usually does not result in serious social consequences such as crime, hospital emergency room admissions, or death.” Thus, the Task Force recommended de-emphasizing cocaine (and marijuana) investigations and giving higher priority to heroin cases.
Later, President Jimmy Carter’s drug advisor, Dr. Peter Bourne, was quoted as saying: “Cocaine is probably the most benign of illicit drugs currently in widespread use. At least as strong a case could be made for legalizing as for legalizing marijuana.”
The administrations’ state of denial belied the reality that, during the 1970s, cocaine and marijuana had become the main drugs of choice in the U.S., and Colombian drug traffickers were more than happy to oblige the market. While drug enforcement agencies were being told to focus their attention on heroin, marijuana and cocaine from Colombia was coming into the country by the ton. With this lackadaisical attitude toward marijuana and cocaine, traffickers in those drugs faced little opposition to their operations.
By the mid 1970s, South Florida had been overrun by violent, Latin American marijuana and cocaine traffickers, establishing Miami as the drug capital of the Western Hemisphere. In 1979, illegal drug trade was the state’s largest industry, said to be worth $10 billion per year.
That year, the American public received a rude awakening when two men were killed and a clerk was wounded in a broad daylight liquor store shooting at the Dadeland Mall, Florida’s largest shopping center. The dead men were identified as a Colombia-based cocaine trafficker and his bodyguard.
The Ford Administration White Paper’s claim that cocaine “usually does not result in serious social consequences” was starting to look pretty stupid.
Despite their orders to focus on the heroin trade, drug enforcement agents were nevertheless observant of an increase in the volume of cocaine coming into the country. Around 1974, DEA agents began to notice a connection between many of their cocaine seizures. What had been thought to be a series of isolated, unconnected trafficking operations was starting to look more like an organized network. DEA estimated that 70 percent of the cocaine coming into the U.S. was coming from Colombia. Investigations were increasingly uncovering networks tied to Colombia, and it was happening all over the country.
Former DEA agent, Bob Nieves, was there, and he saw it all. “In the 1970s when I first came on, the people who were doing most of the cocaine business—at least from our perspective in New York City—were Chilean. Then around 1973 was the overthrow of the Chilean government,” said Nieves. Although that particular coup d’etat resulted in years of violent military rule, it did have a negative effect on Chilean organized crime. “The Colombians saw an opportunity to fill the void. And they did.
“The first time we saw Colombian cocaine traffic of any relevance in the United States was around 1972 in New York City. At that time, we saw Colombian traffickers engage in smuggling, using clever techniques like concealment in coat hangers, concealment in a bird cage, concealment within double-sided suitcases…these kinds of things.”
But drug trafficking is a growth-oriented enterprise, and as the traffickers perfected their craft, the volumes of cocaine shipped into the U.S. grew. “We realized how organized they were becoming,” said Nieves. “Over the course of my career, I had the experience of watching Colombian cocaine trafficking evolve from the point where they were doing one or two kilos, to Boeing 727 airliners loaded with five, six, or seven tons of cocaine. The first big indictment we got against these guys was about 1974-75 when we indicted about 35 well-organized people engaged in cocaine smuggling.”
These guys turned out to be what would later become known as the Medellin Cartel, one of the most ruthless and powerful criminal syndicates the world has ever seen.
During the 1970s, a friendship developed between a marijuana trafficker by the name of George Jung and Carlos Lehder, who had ties to Colombia, while both were in prison. Jung had been smuggling massive quantities of marijuana into the United States using private aircraft before his arrest and conviction, and the pair concocted the idea to do the same with cocaine.
When both men were released from prison, Lehder purchased Norman’s Cay in the Bahamas to serve as an air base for smuggling cocaine into the United States. Colombian traffickers, based in the city of Medellin, took advantage of this pipeline into the U.S., and by the early 1980s, the Medellin Cartel was shipping 125 tons of cocaine per year to the United States. “By the late 1970’s they were doing—at any given time—routine 50-kilo shipments to a place like New York City,” said Nieves. This was up from 10, 20, 30 kilos per week in the earlier part of the decade.
It was now pretty clear that cocaine was not as relatively harmless as earlier conventional wisdom suggested. Drug use and abuse had reached an all time high in 1979 in the U.S., and the now-entrenched Medellin Cartel was exporting other evils of drug culture to the United States in addition to the product.
The Cartel not only controlled the Colombian cocaine industry, it controlled Colombia. Murder, intimidation, and assassination were the preferred methods for keeping the press and government officials quiet.
By 1985, Colombia’s murder rate was the world’s highest. Over 1,600 people were murdered in Medellin alone that year, and twice as many the following year. But the violence and mayhem were not confined to the South American country. The drug traffickers had become so well organized and so pervasively networked in the United States that they were able to infiltrate legitimate business sectors like banking and import/export. Drug gangs formed on the streets of American cities and towns, bringing violence and terror to communities. Pablo Escobar and Fabio Ochoa became household names in the United States.
“We were not strategically organized within the government to deal with that,” said Nieves. The cartels had, by this time, perfected the distribution of cocaine. They had their cell groups in place throughout the United States, and they were importing as much cocaine as they wanted, notwithstanding the fact that we were seizing hundreds of kilos at a time.
“The initial national response was to create a big task force, but even the way it was structured was fragmented. It was still being dealt with as a regional problem, even though, by that time, it had become a global problem.
“And then around 1980 the crack cocaine epidemic hit the United States and changed the whole perspective of priorities at DEA.”
Thanks to the nearly unabated flow of cocaine—“We couldn’t even work cocaine cases from about 1977 to 1980 because heroin was our priority, said Nieves”—supply of the drug eventually exceeded demand, despite its rising popularity, and the cocaine industry had surplus inventory on its hands.
Astute marketers that they were, the traffickers needed a way to boost demand so they could move excess supply. A cheaper, more addictive form of cocaine would make the drug available to a wider market with a bigger appetite. The revolutionary new product was crack, and the cocaine business was about to have a fire sale.
“Along with crack came addiction,” said Nieves. “Most cocaine abuse prior to 1980 in the United States was snorted and used recreationally. When crack hit, the drug was no longer confined to the jazz and art community—was no longer only a part of the sub-culture of the pop generation, so to speak. Now it’s all over the United States. Now it’s in the Midwest. Now it’s in rural America. Young kids are smoking a form of cocaine that’s as addictive as heroin.
“By then, because of so many years of inattention, the cartels had really gotten a foothold in the United States. It wasn’t until about 1984 that we took our first shot at trying to get organized to fight them. I was fortunate enough to wind up in a job where I could have some impact on the policy. We began to organize ourselves in such a way that treated it as a national and international threat and created coordination at the headquarters level to attack the problem. That’s when we focused on different leaders of the cartels and put in programs to bring them down. We did this over the course of the next several years.”
The cartels were very highly organized and, in many ways, were no different than any other corporate enterprise that manufactures and markets a product. Their business required raw materials, plant and equipment, transportation, financing, communication, and a leadership hierarchy. DEA adopted a new strategy aimed more at attacking the corporate structure and less at seizing drug shipments.
One tactic was to disrupt the flow of chemicals used in the manufacturing process. “They’re essentially a commodity and were delivered in tanker trucks for the most part,” said Nieves. So it was not very difficult to find and block chemical shipments, but this wasn’t enough to deliver a real knockout blow. “Resilient as they are, if you were putting a damper on their shipments of acetone, they would switch to an acetone-like substitute.”
DEA also targeted the money. To do that, they established undercover money laundering operations, which allowed them to follow the money and seize accounts all over the world.
The real targets, though, were the bosses—the kingpins. To get them, DEA needed to infiltrate the cartels’ communications. “We mandated that everyone was going to use wiretapping,” said Nieves. “You can’t penetrate these cartels at a certain level because anybody in a position of authority isolates himself. Intercepting their communications was the only way to get that information without an informant.
“In order to do that well, you had to be sure that everybody was on board. The key cities in the U.S. were New York, Miami, Houston, and L.A. You had to have all these people talking and sharing information, which prior to that was a rarity. Breaking that mold was hard, but we were able to do it. This got the DEA effort running like a fine-tuned machine. Over time it worked. The bottom line is, over the next three or four years the cartels as we knew them were pretty much done.”
In the early 1990s two of the Medellin Cartel’s three top leaders, Fabio Ochoa and his brother, Jorge Luis, surrendered to Colombian authorities. This left Pablo Escobar. However, by that time, the Cartel had crumbled to a point where Escobar’s primary pursuits in life were paranoia and self-preservation. The final years of his life were spent running and hiding from the law, enemies in the drug trade, and any former friends whom he hadn’t gotten around to killing. It ended for Pablo Escobar when the Colombian National Police took him out with a fusillade of bullets on December 2, 1993.
“He came to his rightful end if you ask me,” said Nieves. “The only rewards you get in the police business are the recognition of your peers, the recognition of a job well done, and a sense of accomplishment. So were there a lot of people celebrating the day Escobar got killed? You bet there were.”
While a major victory for drug enforcement, the demise of the Medellin Cartel obviously did not forever eradicate the cocaine trade. “There’s always somebody waiting in the shadows to step in,” said Nieves. Case in point: the Cali Cartel, which operated parallel to Medellin, but eventually shifted much of its business to post Cold War Eastern Europe. Today, Mexico is the U.S. market’s primary source of cocaine.
Does it frustrate the men and women of DEA to know that the drug trade continues despite their efforts? Perhaps on a certain level it does, but it’s a job that requires a pragmatic viewpoint. “Jack Lawn (former DEA Administrator) said, ‘There is no law enforcement solution to the drug problem,’” said Nieves. “But we play our own small role.”
DEA will keep doing its part, but cultural attitudes need to change if the drug problem is to be solved.