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Colombia: Cocaine Nation

Having lived in Colombia for about eight months, my life motto now staunchly asserts, “Don’t judge a country until you’ve been there yourself.”

If stereotypes dictated our geographical meditations, then the United States would be a fast-food nation catering to the gluttonous cravings of Daddy Warbucks-esque businessmen, and Colombia would be a coked-out war zone overrun by jungle and narcotraficantes. Numerous times during my year here, I’ve been asked, “You’re American? Then why aren’t you fat?” While I’ve taught myself to let such cultural misconceptions slide, it’s hard not to be initially angered by the world’s view of Americans as materialistic, self-centered, and globally ignorant. Yet, that sort of tunnel vision occurs on both sides of the coin – we have no right to be angered by harsh assumptions when we’re making those harsh assumptions ourselves.

Whenever my students ask me about global perceptions of Colombia, I answer openly, honestly, and with the plain truth: most foreigners equate Colombia with drugs, coffee, and violence. How narrow-minded for a country that is so much more! Yet, just as my students and I aren’t lounging in classrooms doing cocaine, neither are Americans permanently inhabiting McDonald’s Playlands. And just as I hope to make Colombians aware of the truth of American culture, my students have equally pried open my mind to new Colombian conceptions. As they often challenge, “Colombians may be producing cocaine, but wealthier regions like the US and Western Europe are fueling consumption.” Considering such a chain of command, it’s impossible to say that any such event is globally isolated. The world may see drugs as a “Colombian” problem, but it’s a problem perpetuated even by ourselves. And, in that sense, it’s important to know the reality of the situation. To every stereotype, there is a grain of truth – without that kernel of reality, the stereotype wouldn’t exist at all. What, then, is the truth of drug-trafficking in Colombia?

I don’t claim to know everything about Colombia’s drug situation – this topic could be the focus of multiple doctorates alone – but, by digging deeper, I hope to excavate the truth from a labyrinth of myths, to paint broad brushstrokes of Colombia’s drug reality – both the reality that I have experienced, and the one affecting daily lives in this country. Consider the following series of articles a collection of snapshots, true-to-life vignettes of Colombia’s relationship with drugs.
Faced with a topic so daunting, where to start?

Vignette #1: Let’s start with the truth. The truth is that over half of Colombia is virtually ungoverned. Take a quick look at any map of Colombia, and you will see that the northwestern half of the country is a sardine-like cluster of cities and pueblos, which gradually dissipate toward the southeast until….suddenly….there’s nothing at all. Mired in the quicksand of disputed territory, such isolated inhabitants have three choices: pledge loyalty to the Colombian soldiers, pledge loyalty to the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia), or die. The last choice is, of course, the least preferable. That being said, such immeasurable geographic differences – engendering either isolation or global inclusion – and thus the ensuing political and judicial consequences, mean that Colombians lead very different lives depending on their geographic location. While an American living in a small Midwestern town may experience a “different” version of the United States than a bustling New Yorker, their realities are fundamentally equal – both have access to schools, health care, banks, judicial processes, and basic necessities, at least within a reasonable distance. In Colombia, however, the social gap is so stark that, while a Colombian in Bogotá may be hitting luxurious theaters for the latest installment of The Hunger Games, a villager in the rural southeast cannot even access running water. Many commentators refer to such social disparity as “las dos Colombias” (the two Colombias) in reference to the two, invisible countries – one rich and one poor – co-existing within the physical boundaries of one nation. In fact, Colombia has the third largest socioeconomic gap in the world, only trailing behind Angola and Haiti.

Consequently, for Colombians in the remotest of regions, there is no potable water, no bank, no police station, no court system, no judicial processing, and no government representation. Devoid of consequences for lawless behavior – for thievery, murder, and drug trafficking – who is to prevent these villagers from becoming victim to the most heinous of crimes? Who is to prevent them from being attracted to the drug trade themselves (seen as a much more lucrative career path than any other available), or encouraged to do so by members of the FARC? And that’s without mentioning the FARC’s tendency to give villagers two options: contribute a family member to their armed rebel forces, or face OUR judicial consequences – consequences that, I can assure you, involve no judge or standard of “innocent until proven guilty.” Without governmental influence to firmly implant stability, drug trafficking – intimately tied to the FARC and other guerrilla insurgencies – becomes not just a road to wealth, but a way of life unchecked by even the most basic of governmental forces. The FARC becomes rural Colombia’s de-facto government and, in doing so, gives rise to a virtual, modern-day recreation of the Wild Wild West.

The reality of the situation, however, is that most Colombians are immune to the drug trafficking occurring within their own borders. As a current resident of Bogotá, I have not once witnessed drug-related violence or even seen drugs openly sold on the street. While the descriptions above may leave your mind reeling with images of remote jungles, war-painted soldiers, and drug smugglers, the majority of Colombians only see such occurrences on the news or in the newspaper – just as if they were watching CNN in the United States. As Colombian urbanites, their geographical proximity to the heart of Colombia’s drug war (virtually unreachable given the lack of infrastructure available to remote regions) makes the drug situation no more their daily reality than ours as Americans in a foreign country.

Given the reality of the drug situation in Colombia – the inherent complexity, the deep roots in Colombia’s remotest regions, the lack of constant governmental presence – how exactly did the drug situation arise? Who is the FARC, and how did the situation come to be what it is today? How did Colombia ultimately earn the moniker “Cocaine Nation”?