Fundamentally the Medellin Cartel owes most of its initial success to Carlos Lehder and his innovative cocaine transpiration network. When Carlos Lehder met marijuana trafficker George Jung in an American prison he realized that cocaine could be smuggled into the United States through the use of small planes in the same way that Marijuana was. Before this, cocaine was trafficked through the use of human mules, which was much less efficient. Lehder was able to combine his connections to cocaine traffickers in Colombia with Jung’s connection to smugglers and drug wholesalers to move an exponentially greater amount of cocaine into America. Soon after leaving jail Lehder was able to buy and control an entire island in the Bahamas, called Norman’s Cay, and use it as base to fly cocaine into America.[i]
The most important cocaine trafficker that was using Carlos Lehder’s transportation routes was Pablo Escobar. Escobar started off as a small time crook, but by 1989 it was estimated by Forbes that he was the world’s seventh richest man with an income of $25 billion and control of 80% of the world’s cocaine trafficking.[ii] Pablo Escobar was born during a time period known as La Violencia in Colombia, which from 1948-1965 was a period of partisan violence between conservatives and liberals in rural Colombia that killed more than 200,000 people.[iii] In the aftermath of La Violencia several leftist terrorist groups like FARC, ELN, and M-19 formed.
Due to the ongoing terrorism and insurgency there were large parts of the country that were beyond government control, which enabled the Medellin Cartel to set up large cocaine processing labs in rebel controlled territory, including Tranquilandia, which was a major cocaine processing complex that employed, housed and fed at least 100 people, had a landing strip, planes, a helicopter, and about $1.2 billion dollars worth of cocaine. Tranquilandia was within territory controlled by FARC and guarded by the rebels.[iv] In a politically stable state where the government controlled all state territory, it is unthinkable that a criminal group would have the opportunity to so openly build a major drug processing center on the scale of Tranquilandia.
A unique aspect of the Medellin Cartel was the extent it was involved in its own community through politics and social outreach. Pablo Escobar was an elected alternate member of the Colombian Congress, and was considered a Robin Hood figure in his city of Medellin. One example of his work in the community was the building of new housing units for the poor. Escobar’s political and social activities follow the logic of insurgencies that rely on the goodwill of the community that they operate in to evade state capture, and while he was a member of the Congress, Escobar was also immune from prosecution. Another one of the key Cartel figures, Carlos Lehder, formed his own political party, the National Latin Movement, based on his own mix of ultranationalist and neo-Nazi ideals. One notable aspect of the political party was its anti-Americanism, Lehder at one point described his desire to use cocaine as a weapon by flooding the American market to disrupt the American political and moral system.[v]
The major political aim of the Medellin Cartel was to fight the extradition treaty signed between America and Colombia. Under the terms of the treaty, Colombian drug lords who had operations in America could be extradited and punished there even if they had never physically left Colombia. In order to combat this treaty, the Medellin Cartel members relied on terrorism, such as the assassination of Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who was the Justice Minister of Colombia, and who had signed extradition orders for the top leaders of the Medellin Cartel. On April 30, 1984, he was killed by an assassin on the back of a motorcycle as he was sitting in his car. The public were outraged by the attack and the Colombian government was motivated to target the drug lords. The Cartel had to look to foreign allies in the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and General Noriega in Panama to shelter them to avoid the blowback from the assassination. These allies also allowed the Cartel to use its landing strips and build drug processing labs in their countries.[vi]
After the Bonilla incident, the Cartel’s efforts shifted away from mainstream participation in the political process to a single minded terrorist campaign against extradition. From 1986-1990 the Medellin Cartel were involved with 19 car bomb attacks, the murder of at least 250 police men, the Avianca Flight 203 bombing that killed 110 people, as well as the murder of Luis Carlos Galán, a popular politician who was in line to become the presidential candidate for the Liberal party during the 1990 elections. The Medellin Cartel continued its violent campaign and drug trafficking until it dissolved in 1993 after Escobar was killed by the Colombian police.
[i] Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Lean, Kings of Cocaine: Inside the Medellin Cartel: An astonishing true story of murder, money, and international corruption, (New Orleans: Garrett Country Press, 2011), Kindle File
[ii] Tim Rutten, “Book Review: ‘The Accountant’s Story’ by Roberto Escobar with David Fisher,” Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2009 (accessed March 8, 2014); available from http://articles.latimes.com/2009/feb/25/entertainment/et-rutten25
[iii] James L. Zackrison, “La Violencia in Colombia: An Anomaly in Terror,” Conflict Quarterly Vol 9, No 4 (1989): 5-9
[iv] Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Lean, Kindle File
[vi] Larry Rohter, “Former Smuggler Ties Top Officials Of Cuba and Nicaragua to Drug Ring,” The New York Times, November 21, 1991 (accessed March 8, 2014) available from http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/21/us/former-smuggler-ties-top-officials-of-cuba-and-nicaragua-to-drug-ring.html