Kings of Cocaine
Cocaine: During the 1970’s it became a drug of notoriety, even fascination, among millions of Americans. Initially restricted to the relatively few who had the connections and the money to buy the powerful white powder, cocaine quickly spread into middle- and lower-class neighborhoods, and as its price fell its availability increased. By the early 1980’s cocaine was coming into the United States in hundreds of tons, as low-flying airplanes and high- powered boats serviced an ever-widening distribution network. By that time, perhaps as many as twenty million Americans were regular cocaine users, and drug enforcement agents saw little sign that the supply was going to diminish. Indeed, for much of this time, neither state nor federal drug agents truly realized the magnitude of the cocaine problem; few would have believed it possible that a small, powerful band of drug lords—a true cartel—had taken control of at least half of the cocaine traffic coming into the United States. Yet this was precisely the situation, and during the decade of the 1980’s, the war between drug dealers and authorities steadily escalated, with each side bringing in heavier firepower, tapping greater resources, and fighting with increased determination. It has not always been certain which side is winning.
The source for most cocaine is Colombia, South America, and the capital of cocaine traffic in Colombia is the city of Medellin, in the north-central portion of the country. Second only to the capital of Bogotli in size, Medellin is noted for its business enterprise and adventurous spirit, with mining, coffee, and industry forming the legitimate backbone of its growth. It is also known for a long history of smuggling, an activity which became paramount in the 1970’s as the cocaine industry took hold in the region.
A number of factors contributed to the development of the drug trade in Medellin, but by far the most important was the determination of a few young men in the city to seize on this opportunity and ruthlessly develop it. Recognizing the immense potential market for cocaine—especially in the United States, so fabulously wealthy compared to Colombia—these young entrepreneurs became, to paraphrase the words of a federal attorney who later prosecuted them, “the Henry Fords of cocaine.”
In other words, they took a drug which had a small, rather limited market, one which was available only to the wealthy and well connected, and made it a staple on the drug market of every street corner and parking lot across America. During this process, they became wealthy almost beyond comprehension: $2 billion a year would eventually flow through their hands. Also during the process, they became violent and powerful almost beyond belief, not hesitating to bribe judges, assassinate newspaper editors and government officials in Colombia-Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla and Supreme Court Justice Hernando Baquero Borda were both ambushed and murdered by gunmen because of their opposition to the drug trade. In the United States, the tentacles of the drug lords began to reach nationwide.
The key to this success was the consolidation of power and opportunity in the hands of a very few men, the four key players who controlled the Medellin cartel. The agreement among the participants made it a true cartel, a combination of independent drug producers and dealers whose common interest was in limiting competition among themselves and so maximizing their influence and profits. Abiding by the true spirit of unrestricted capitalism, the cartel established a thoroughly vertically integrated operation, controlling all steps in the drug process, from growing the plants to distribution of the final product. The result was that, by the early 1980’s, the Medellin cartel had a lockhold on the American cocaine market, and could regulate street prices at will.
The masterminds of the cartel were four young Colombians who made up in native shrewdness and ambition what they might have lacked in formal education or experience. Jorge Luis Ochoa Vasquez (El Gordo, the Fat One), Pablo Escobar Gaviria (El Padrino, the Godfather), Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez (the Mexican), and Carlos Lehder Rivas (Joe Lehder) were the central figures in this multinational drug conglomerate. They came from the rough background of lower-class Medellin, those who called themselves the paisas, a tough and resourceful breed who could be found on both sides of the law. The vital difference between the cartel founders and hundreds of other young paisas was that Ochoa, Escobar, Gonzalo, and Lehder had the imagination to envision the scale on which cocaine could be marketed in the United States (and worldwide) and the ruthlessness to act upon that vision.
So quick and extensive was their expansion that few law enforcement officials or drug agents truly comprehended the extent of the cartel’s influence. Beginning sometime in the early 1970’s,...
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