Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681

The Rise of Drug Trafficking
Narcotics emerged as a major national problem in the late 1970s when Colombia began exporting a great deal of marijuana to the United States. With the profits from marijuana, drug leaders diversified their operations to include cocaine trafficking. Two major drug cartels—Mafia-like organizations—evolved, one in Medellín and the second in Cali. The Medellín cartel was led by Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder, and a few other men. Escobar bribed and threatened government officials to ensure their cooperation. He also attempted to get involved in the government himself and was elected to the Congress as a member of the Liberal party.

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The Drug War
Violence grew along with the drug trafficking. In 1984, Medellín traffickers assassinated President Belisario Betancur's minister of justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who had taken an aggressive policy against drug dealers. Betancur invoked his state of siege powers, and extradited thirteen drug dealers to the United States. The Medellín cartel, calling themselves the Extraditables, immediately began a campaign against extradition, which included targeting the treaty's prominent supporters. Drug kingpin Lehder was extradited to the United States in 1987, where he stood trial and received a life sentence plus 135 years. (He was released in 1996.) The Medellín cartel launched an unsuccessful hit on the minister of justice, assassinated the attorney general, kidnapped a candidate for mayor of Bogotá, and bombed a newspaper office, a commercial airliner, and the national police agency.

This narcoterrorism led to an enormous rise in Colombia's murder rate; in 1989, homicide was the leading cause of death in the country. The destructive effects of this violence were perhaps most readily apparent in the 1990 presidential campaign, as three candidates were assassinated, including the poll-leading Luis Carlos Galán. This action led President Virgilio Barco Vargas to declare a War on Drugs, which involved concerted repression of drug dealers. While several leading drug traffickers were arrested or killed, Escobar responded with his own wave of terrorist attacks. Barco also used the weapon of extradition, promising to enforce the new treaty with the United States that would send drug dealers to America to face prosecution and punishment. Barco believed that extradition was an effective resource against drug-related criminal activities.

The End of the Medellín Cartel
César Gaviria Trujillo, elected in 1990, also held a hard-line anti-drug policy, but he believed that extradition should be only one way to fight the war on drugs. Instead, he favored strengthening the Colombian justice and penal system to deal with traffickers nationally. He implemented a policy of plea bargaining, often combined with a reduction of sentences, to win the surrender of drug traffickers. The rewritten constitution of 1991 declared extradition to be unconstitutional, removing the issue from both Colombian politics and the War on Drugs. These efforts led to the surrender of most members of the Medellín cartel, notably Pablo Escobar in 1992. After escaping thirteen months later, in July 1993, Escobar immediately began to carry out internal purges of his organization and launch another terrorist campaign. A special unit tracked down Escobar in December, and shot and killed him, which also brought the end of the Medellín cartel.

The Colombian Economy
One of the reasons that drugs became such big business in Colombia was the troubled economy. Colombia had long been wracked by economic woes. While the discovery in 1985 of a large petroleum reserve was a major boost to the declining economy, the drug trade also provided enormous benefits. The drug industry made annual trade balances positive whereas they were negative for legal...

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