Everyone remembers the small plane that buzzed around the clear sky over this beautiful section of western Colombia toward the end of 2003, tossing out hundreds of pamphlets. Promising a "black Christmas," the pamphlets said "the good children will go to bed early. The bad children we'll put to bed ourselves." Colombia's worst drug war in more than a decade was about to get worse.
Set amid rich farmland in the shadows of mountains, the towns of El Dovio, Zarzal, and Roldanillo are snapshots of rustic Colombia's beauty. Middle-aged women, overweight in that way peculiar to a rich rural diet, can be seen driving the latest SUVs. Behind this rural gentility, these towns have long served as the headquarters of Colombia's largest remaining cocaine trafficking organization, the Northern Valley cartel. The cartel is at war with itself, a firestorm of violence targeting anyone linked to the organization in the past or present, no matter how tenuously.
In this tiny corner of Colombia, with a population of 260,000, more than 1,000 people have been murdered during the last 20 months. The war is between former partners within the cartel, one of whom, Diego Montoya, sits alongside Osama bin Laden on the FBI's top-10 wanted list. According to police, the war began when each capo began worrying that the others might be planning to negotiate with the Colombian and U.S. authorities at the expense of their associates.
The war has followed the cartel's trail across Colombia, with a series of grisly killings in the country's principal cities: Bogota, Cali, and Medellin. The war's cruelty has shocked a country that thought it was desensitized to violence. Victims have been asphyxiated with plastic bags, killed by nails hammered into their heads, and in some cases dismembered while still alive.
The authorities are struggling to cope with the underage assassins carrying out many of these killings. Since the most popular form of assassination involves a shooter sitting on the back of a high-powered motorbike, some Colombian cities made it illegal for two men to travel on the same motorbike. The assassins responded by putting wigs on the shooters to make them look like women.
"This drug war has moved beyond a question of crime," says Apolinar Salcedo, the mayor of Cali, Colombia's second largest city and the scene of much of the killing. "This is now a question of national security."
This hurricane of violence has led a growing number of Colombians, including leading members of the venerable Conservative Party, to question the drug policies that have helped make their country one of the world's most dangerous. "We Colombians have had enough," says Ferney Lozano, director of the Legalization Now movement, which was founded in 1999 and claims more than 100 elected officials across the country as members. "We're sick of paying the consequences of this war against drugs with thousands killed each year. People are seeing that if anything things are getting worse, with more people becoming addicts, and they are now questioning whether the costs of this drug war are worth it."
Legalization Now says the money spent waging the War on Drugs should instead be spent on rehabilitation for drug addicts and aid to coca farmers to help them switch crops. The changes advocated by Colombia's reformers range from decriminalization, which would lift all penalties on drug possession, to the worldwide repeal of prohibition, which would eliminate the drug trade's artificially inflated profits and put the traffickers out of business. By itself Colombia can do only so much, since both the demand for cocaine and the demand to eliminate its production come from abroad. But criticism of the War on Drugs from members of the country's political establishment shows that President Alvaro Uribe's gung-ho support for U.S. anti-drug efforts is not the only respectable position. "To be honest," says Lozano, "I think before 10 years it's highly unlikely that we'll see a change in the drugs policy, but we've made huge advances in the five years we've been working."
Cocaine violence, combined with endemic poverty, has given Colombia one of the world's highest murder rates. The violence does not stop with the cartels: The illicit drug trade is the main source of funding for the country's four-decade civil war, which pits Marxist guerrillas against extreme right-wing paramilitaries and the state.
The right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish acronym AUC, have grown to become the most important illegal armed group in the country, eclipsing even the guerrillas as they've consolidated power in different regions, taking over local governments and reaching as high as the Colombian Congress. The rapid growth was funded both by contributions from legal businesses and by drug profits; according to a former head of the AUC, 70 percent of the group's income comes from drugs.
In 2003 a rogue AUC commander known as Double Zero attempted to lead a rebellion within the paramilitaries against the drug traffickers. "The paramilitaries lost their way," he told me in early 2004. "Instead of concentrating on defeating the guerrillas, they've become dedicated to nothing more than drug trafficking." In a match between ideals and drug money, ideals were crushed. Double Zero's bloc was annihilated and he himself assassinated. The drug trafficking wing of the paramilitaries was supreme. In a reflection of how high the traffickers reach in the movement, six of the 14 commanders in peace talks with the government have extradition warrants out for them, including the current leader, Salvatore Mancuso. They all deny dealing drugs.
Cocaine also funds their enemies, the Marxist guerrillas. The U.S. and Colombian governments claim the 20,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC) earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the drug trade. A number of FARC guerrillas face extradition warrants, and the highest-ranking leader ever captured was sent to the U.S. over Christmas to stand trial on drug trafficking charges.
FARC denies any participation in the drug trade, insisting it only taxes coca farmers. FARC's other main source of income is kidnapping, helping propel Colombia to the top spot on the world's kidnapping index.
FARC's actions suggest a growing interest in drug trafficking to finance the revolution. FARC has targeted paramilitary coca fields, killing peasants working there. It's no coincidence that the civil war is most heavily contested where coca is grown and along the borders, where control of territory allows the export of drugs and import of arms.