War on Drugs

Decline of Colombia's Drug Gangs Helps Mexico's Cartels

They're getting access to cheap cocaine


Want to understand why Mexican cartels are awash in cheap Colombian cocaine? The decline and fall of Colombia's drug gangs, once the undisputed masters of the illicit drug trade, help explain it.

According to a recent report from the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, the Mexican cartels are taking on a greater share of the cocaine supply chain, heavily originating in Colombia, while the Colombian drug groups known as the Bacrim are in decline. The Bacrim — a term used for the Colombia's narco-paramilitary gangs — have "entered a phase of organizational fragmentation and weakening" (.pdf, in Spanish) according to the report. That weakness has led to Mexican market strength, as the cartels are now able to more easily shop around and drive a higher bargain from the fragmented groups. In a way, it's a sort of self-fulfilling narco-economic prophecy.

Daniel Rico, the report's author and a former counter-narcotics adviser to the Colombian Defense Ministry, began by looking at drug trafficking data collected by the United Nations and the Organization of American States. What he found was a connection between the growth in the number of Bacrim groups in the late 2000s — which he believes was a sign they were fragmenting into smaller groups — and a decline in coca cultivation. The share of cocaine profits for the Bacrim also declined. In the late 1990s, a kilo of Colombian cocaine could bring in $16,000 in profit after export to the United States. Today, the Bacrim make about $5,500.