HomeNewsAnalysisGrowing Local Drug Market Fuels Colombia's Underworld
ANALYSIS

Growing Local Drug Market Fuels Colombia's Underworld

COLOMBIA / 17 MAY 2013 BY JAMES BARGENT EN

Police say that one fifth of the cocaine produced in Colombia is now sold on the domestic market, highlighting what provoked Colombia's government to declare "total war" on an increasingly important source of criminal revenue -- micro-trafficking.

In April, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos announced "Plan Green Heart" -- a nationwide assault on the street level drug sale points known as "ollas." Midway through the 60-day operation, a special report by newspaper El Tiempo revealed the extent of Colombia's micro-trafficking business, illustrating how the country is no longer just a drug-producing nation, but is now an important consumer country as well.

According to Colombia's investigative police force, the DIJIN, of the estimated 345 tons of cocaine produced in Colombia a year, 70 tons -- around 20 percent -- is sold within the country, either as cocaine powder or the cheaper, smokable alternative cocaine base.

There has also been a recent boom in synthetic drugs such as 2CB, which is also manufactured in the country and sold to the young elite for up to $75 a hit.

The Colombian marijuana trade is even more focused on the internal market, with an estimated 30 percent grown in the country sold as an export crop. According to figures from the Ministry of Justice, this means approximately 640 tons of marijuana is consumed in Colombia each year.

While the production and wholesale of drugs mostly remains in the hands of national criminal groups such as the Urabeños or guerrillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), street level sales are controlled by street gangs and localized mini-cartels. Shortly before the start of the micro-trafficking crackdown, police arrested several leaders from one of the biggest of these organizations -- La Cordillera, a Bogota-based group, whose reach stretches through Colombia's departmental capitals and even into the Ecuadorean micro-trafficking market.

These mini-cartels operate with a similar structure to transnational drug trafficking groups, according to Colombia police chief Jose Roberto Leon Riaño. Aside from the principal capos, there are second-in-commands, distribution channels, an armed wing, a production wing, and even teams of lawyers.

Turf disputes between these organizations and the street gangs, which are rampant in cities like Medellin and Cali, fuel much of Colombia's violence and are responsible for an estimated 40 percent of murders, according to police analysis.

Drugs are mostly sold in ollas, which literally means saucepan. The olla, in this instance, can be a building, but also a locally known location such as a park or a street corner. According to the police, the ollas in the Bronx -- Bogota's micro-trafficking hub -- can bring in $20 to $30,000 a day.

InSight Crime Analysis

Aside from social factors such as more openness to experimentation with recreational drugs and rises in addiction in socially deprived areas, the growth of the domestic market is arguably linked to the growth of the middle class and changes in the criminal world. Colombia's middle class has grown by 50 percent in the last two decades, according to a recent World Bank report (pdf). The report says the middle class grew in the rest of Latin America as well, helping fuel this phenomenon of rising drug consumption regionwide. 

Marijuana is the most commonly consumed drug in Colombia, and it is a market that has long rotated around domestic use. In the 1960s and 1970s, Colombia was a major exporter of marijuana to the United States. However, this began to change in the 1980s, when Colombian traffickers turned to the more lucrative cocaine trafficking market, while the United States increasingly sourced marijuana grown in Mexico or within its own borders.

The trade is currently dominated by the FARC, who supply criminal groups with marijuana mostly grown in the southwest. According to El Tiempo, the guerrillas have been quick to exploit the increasing popularity in Colombia of much more powerful hydroponic marijuana, which not only provides more crops per year but also commands a much higher market price.

The growth in the amount of cocaine sold on the internal market is a more recent trend, and is likely linked to the diminishing role of Colombian criminal organizations in international trafficking. Mexican cartels' increased handling of the cocaine trade -- alongside increased pressure from law enforcement agencies -- has made the international export of cocaine both riskier and less profitable for Colombian groups. As a result, the domestic market -- which features lower profits, but also lower costs and risks -- has looked increasingly attractive.

As El Tiempo points out, micro-trafficking in Colombia is usually controlled by mini-cartels, such as La Cordillera, or street gangs, while the country's larger organized crime groups, such as the Rastrojos and the Urabeños, remain focused on the international trade. However, this does not mean they do not profit from the micro-trafficking business. Colombia's bigger organized crime groups can act as wholesalers, as was likely the relationship between La Cordillera and the Rastrojos. In cities where micro-trafficking is run by street gangs, the groups can take a cut through their networks of affiliated gangs, as the Urabeños do in Medellin.

Reports on the impact of the government's campaign against micro-trafficking and ollas quickly highlighted the problems it faces if it is to tackle the issue in any meaningful way. In Medellin, the dramatic improvement of one area that was a renowned olla has simply led to the displacement of the dealers, addicts, and the problems they bring -- sometimes to just over a block away. Some local businesses in the areas they moved to reported a 50 percent drop in sales.

The Santos government has listed micro-trafficking as one of the country's three main security threats, along with the guerrillas and the narco-paramilitary groups it calls the BACRIM ("bandas criminals" or "criminal bands"). Consequently, the government has declared war on the business, a strategy that Police Director Leon has described as "an irreversible frontal assault."

Plan Green Heart was intended to be the first stage in that war, and according to Santos, the operation achieved the majority of its aims, with some 17 ollas shut down and 1,300 people arrested. Still, the security forces face an uphill climb in tampering down on Colombia's domestic drug market: police say they have information on 3,350 more ollas around the country.

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