The South American Connection

Since the breakup of the French Connection in the early 1970s, South American drug cartels, particularly those from Colombia, took up the slack with drugs. But unlike the heroin-dominated drug scene of the Mafia, the cartels were into marijuana and a new drug that was taking the party scene by storm, cocaine. Buoyed by celebrities and Studio 54, the coke scene became the hottest new trend and helped the emergence of a new organized crime force.

The Colombian Drug Cartels

The DEA as well as dozens of local and state agencies had its hands full with the Colombian drug cartels, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. These crime families are responsible for most of the cocaine that finds it way into the United States. Another DEA agent, Michael T. Horn, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, compared the American Mafia with these vicious new interlopers:

“In the twentieth century, ‘traditional organized crime’ in America rose to what was then considered unparalleled heights. These organizations were built around a hierarchy of leaders and members. This form of organized crime, although of immigrant background, was rooted on American soil. From our earliest exposure to traditional organized crime, a common thread has been and continues to be the violence with which these organizations are operated, expanded, and controlled.”

Like the Russian Mafia, the Colombian drug lords became the bad guys of the moment in television shows and movies in the 1980s and early 1990s. Tom Clancy's intrepid hero Jack Ryan took them on in the novel Clear and Present Danger.

Ruthless People

The DEA agent quoted above minimizes the brutality of the Colombian drug cartels. Unlike the Mafia, who for the most part killed only their own, the drug cartels were notorious for slaughtering the entire families of their enemies in particularly nasty ways, including women and children. This would have horrified many of the older Mafia dons had they lived to see the horrors that the drug traffic wrought on the innocent.

Colombia produces coca, which is the plant from which cocaine is produced. The nation is geographically ideal for a brisk drug traffic industry. It is at the tip of the South American continent with hundreds of miles of coastline on both the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean and a little over two hours as the plane flies from the United States.

The Colombian drug cartels also worked with Mexican drug smugglers to transport cocaine into America across the United States/Mexico border. There is rampant corruption in the Mexican government and military, and it is not uncommon for military armored vehicles to accompany drug smugglers across the border and even fire upon the American border patrol officers.

Cartel Organization

The DEA assessed the structure and effectiveness of the Colombian drug cartel operations within the United States in one of its reports to Congress:

Members of international groups headquartered in Colombia and Mexico today have at their disposal sophisticated technology — encrypted phones, faxes, and other communications equipment. Additionally, they have in their arsenal aircraft, radar-equipped aircraft, weapons, and an army of workers who oversee the drug business from its raw beginnings in South American jungles to the urban areas within the United States. All of this modern technology and these vast resources enable the leaders of international criminal groups to build organizations that reach into the heartland of America, while they themselves try to remain beyond the reach of American justice. The traffickers also have the financial resources necessary to corrupt enough law enforcement, military, and political officials to create a relatively safe haven for themselves in the countries in which they make their headquarters.

Colombian cocaine trafficking groups in the United States — consisting of midlevel traffickers answering to the bosses in Colombia — continue to be organized around “cells” that operate within a given geographic area. Some cells specialize in a particular facet of the drug trade, such as cocaine transport, storage, wholesale distribution, or money laundering. Each cell, which may be comprised of ten or more employees, operates with little or no knowledge about the membership in, or drug operations of, other cells.

The head of each cell reports to a regional director who is responsible for the overall management of several cells. The regional director, in turn, reports directly to one of the drug lords of a particular organization or their designee based in Colombia. A rigid top-down command-and-control structure is characteristic of these groups. Trusted lieutenants of the organization in the United States have discretion in the day-to-day operations, but ultimate authority rests with the leadership in Colombia.

The upper echelon and management levels of these cells are normally comprised of family members or long-time close associates who can be trusted by the Colombian drug lords — because their family members remain in Colombia as hostages to the cell members' good behavior — to handle their day-to-day drug operations in the United States. The trusted personal nature of these organizations makes it that much harder to penetrate the organizations with confidential sources. That difficulty with penetration makes intercepting criminal telephone calls all the more vital. They report back to Colombia via cell phone, fax, and other sophisticated communications methods. Colombian drug traffickers continually employ a variety of counter-surveillance techniques and tactics, such as fake drug transactions, using telephones they suspect are monitored, limited-time use of cloned cell phones (frequently a week or less), limited use of pagers (from two to four weeks), and use of calling cards. The top-level managers of these Colombian organizations increasingly use sophisticated communications and encryption technology, posing a severe challenge to law enforcement's ability to conduct effective investigations.

Medellin Cartel

The first of the major cartels was the Medellin cartel. This was perhaps the most famous cartel, due to its flamboyant and internationally recognized leader, Pablo Escobar. In the 1970s and early 1980s the Medellins, named for a city in Colombia where they originated, controlled the vast distribution network of drugs coming into North America, mainly through Florida. They had a fleet of American pilots who evaded radar and the peering eyes of law enforcement to bring kilos of coke into the United States.

The cartels also caused instability in their own country. They put bounties on the heads of police departments and infiltrated the government.

The Medellins were represented in Florida by a murderous psycho, who also happened to be a sweet-faced stocky Colombian matriarch named Griselda Blanco. She was so obsessed with crime, she even named one of her sons Michael Corleone! Her paranoia and murderous reign brought a lot of heat down on the organization. Before long the police, FBI, and DEA formed a task force to take the cartel down. Blanco and her underlings were taken out. Colombian police killed Pablo Escobar in 1993.

The Cali Cartel

The heads of the Medellin cartel were gradually murdered and arrested in the 1980s, and the drug outfit that achieved prominence in the lucrative cocaine trade was the Cali cartel. This organization had a little more finesse than its predecessor. Gone were the routine massacres and rampant violence. It was not eliminated entirely, but the Cali cartel was more adept at using legitimate businesses as fronts.

The Cali cartel has extensive operations in the United States. In upstate New York, the state police and the DEA raided a laboratory that had the equipment to produce more than $700 million worth of cocaine a year. And that was just one of their many facilities. It is estimated that the cartel made billions of dollars a year in a period from the late 1980s through the early 1990s.

Like the Medellin cartel, the Cali group had an elaborate network of cells in the United States. Each cell handled a particular aspect of the drug trade, from traffic to storage to bookkeeping. The Cali leadership insisted upon the names of family members of their employees. This was a form of blackmail. As stated earlier, the Colombians would murder entire families of their enemies and employees who fell out of favor either through incompetence or corruption.

Colombia does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. As a result it was illegal for the United States to bring Colombian drug lords to justice in the American justice system. Eventually, the combined efforts of the DEA and the Colombian National Police finally produced results after many years of failures. By 1996, the Cali cartel collapsed and its leaders were either in jail or dead. The Mexican problem continues, however.

When the Colombian drug cartels became known in America, much was written about their tendency to slaughter the whole families of their enemies, including women and children. This is something the American Mafia did not do. It is something that the Sicilian Mafia did. In the Old World, if they killed a man they also killed his sons lest they grow up and exact vengeance.

Mule Train

Heroin is also produced and shipped from Colombia. Poppies, the flower from which opium is produced, grows freely in Colombia and Peru. It goes from the poppy fields to laboratories to be converted into heroin. It is smuggled into the United States via many means, one of which is to use “mules.” People who are called “mules” swallow condoms filled with heroin, fly into the United States, and pass through customs. One would not want to be around when the “mule” discharges the heroin for delivery to the local drug dealer.

  1. Home
  2. Mafia
  3. The Other Mafias
  4. The South American Connection
Visit other About.com sites: