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Who's the world's top cocaine producer?

By Clarence Walker

Who rules the cocaine trade? Will Colombian cartels  remain a  major force in the illegal drug trade in South America and Central America--the primary producing countries of cocaine? Or has other foreigners monopolized the Colombian drug trade to limit the Colombians ability to control the European and Central America illegal drug markets?

Some experts have said there is hard evidence that the Mexicans now dominate the underworld dope trade, not only in Colombia, but Central America, too.

So the billion dollar question is: Has Mexico cartels truly triumphed over the legendary Colombian cartels to become the world's "number# one" distributor of cocaine and heroin?

Global narcotic experts often emphasize the perception that Mexican cartels has severely  weaken the influence and power of Colombian crime syndicates following the fall of the Cali groups and the almighty Medellin cartel once headed by the ruthless Pablo Escobar.

Colombian traffickers are looked at these days as a shell of themselves, unable to regain the power they once possessed during their glory years,  of the 1980s and 1990s.

"The Mexicans took over from the Colombians as the "oligopolists"  of the cocaine trade,"  said Jay Berman during an interview in 2011 with a Wall Street Journal reporter.

Not so, says Guadulupe Correra-Cabrerra, a Ph.D governemnt professor at the University of Texas in Brownsville.  Professor Correa-Cabrera explains,   "what people don't mention is---the ingredients(coca) to make cocaine do not grow in Mexico, but it only comes from the Andean regions where the coca grows; coca, that is made into cocaine."

Colombia, Peru and Bolivia are three primary countries where growing coca is fertilized to make cocaine.

"It's not true at all to say the Mexico cartels control the world market of cocaine,"  stated author Rusty Young aka Uncle Rusty. Young is the author of the book "Marching Powder: True Story of Friendship and Cocaine."

Now residing in Colombia and reportedly teaching English there, author Rusty Young insist that "Colombia is still the biggest producer of cocaine."

"It's hard to get accurate figures about production since the crop location change each year." But, according to Young, "Colombia still produce 80-90 percent of the world's cocaine,  hardly a spent force," Young concludes.

Young's book, Marching Powder, according to Wikipedia, that actor Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment Production Company purchased the rights to Young's book for a future movie.

Drug trafficking in Colombia during its peak years created a multi-billion dollars business, a business so lucrative and dangerous that Pablo Escobar, Medellin's feared drug lord waged a "holy war" against the American and Colombian government--to avoid extradition into the U.S. on drug-related charges that carried up to life without parole.

The prevailing wisdom by experts and narcotic analysis indicate that Colombian traffickers has been eclipsed by Mexican cartels in the cocaine industry even in their own country as well in Central America.

It is true Mexico cartels are spreading their tentacles into Central America but analysts and the media alike exaggerate this trend as if the Colombians only play smaller roles in these areas. Colombian-based cartels and other related syndicates remain highly active in both Colombia and Central America regions, and the Colombians has other lucrative trafficking routes like European countries, Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama, and even Africa.

For example, Colombian kingpin Daniel "El Loco" Barrera owns several front companies including sophisticated cocaine labs in Honduras. Police also accused Barrera of orchestrating a scheme to use Colombian mining companies as a cover to make huge payments to the popular Revolutionary Terrorist army of ERPAC. 

Professor Correrra-Cabrerra further said that after the U.S. government and Colombian government weakened the Colombian cartels and disrupted primary trafficking routes,  that the Colombians diversified the cocaine business by making deals with the Mexican traffickers to pay them for transporting narcotics into Mexico where the narcotics is then shipped to America.

Two decades ago, during the early 1990s, many Colombian citizens, including police officers, judges, politicians, judges, journalists and presidential candidates were assassinated by Medellin's drug lord Pablo Escobar. The Cali group, a second cartel, along with the Medellin cartel were the most powerful and fearsome drug trafficking organizations the world  ever seen.

Despite the cartel's bloody rampage and influential power throughout Colombia and the Western hemisphere--it took only a few years for the Colombian government to defeat them; of course, with the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

By entering into agreements with the Colombians to take the risk of trafficking cocaine from Colombia onto the Mexico-U.S. borders, the Mexico drug cartels grew into  the world's most ruthless and powerful drug trafficking organizations. U.S. and Foreign governments says the Mexican cartels are the biggest suppliers of illegal narcotics into the United States.

According to  law enforcement and foreign policy statistics, half of the estimated $65 billion dollars’ worth of cocaine, heroin, meth, and other illegal drugs  enter the U.S. by Mexico.

Media, narcotic analysts and law enforcement officials have debated for years that Mexico cartels managed to rise to the top of the dope game by forging alliances with the Colombians to seize trafficking routes into the United States---after U.S. government dismantled the notorious Colombian cartels through several arrests and even killing some drug lords like Pablo Escobar, shot to death by authorities on December 2, 1993.

So, at which point, the Colombians decided to allow Mexican traffickers to have a larger role in negotiating cocaine deals to benefit the Mexicans?

As U.S. and Colombian authorities continued to crack down on the Medellin cartel and their allies; the authorities, aided by aerial and maritime surveillance helped to stem the flow of cocaine shipped into the Caribbean by the Colombians, cocaine that were headed for Miami and from there, the drugs were distributed throughout  U.S. cities. Feeling the heat, the Colombians forged a closer connection with major Mexican trafficking organizations.

"During late 1980' until 1990s' the DEA focused on stopping the flow of cocaine through the Caribbean and mostly into Miami," said Joe Toft (right), a retired DEA (Special Agent in Charge of the Bogota Colombia  headquarters). Toft earned the distinction of being one of the lead men for the DEA operation that eventually captured and killed the legendary drug lord Pablo Escobar.

"There were significant success forcing the Colombians to look for other routes,"  Toft explained in a email interview.

Government officials discovered later that Colombian "honchos" used Juan Ramon Matta Ballestro to cut a deal with the Mexican traffickers in 1984-- to transport cocaine from Colombia into Mexico to avoid U.S. DEA detection. Based on  strategic intelligence, the Colombians acknowledged the difficulty for authorities to spot and seize drugs moving across the busy U.S.-Mexico border than it was to spot drugs flowing across the Caribbean, the initial primary route for the Colombians.

In exchange for either cash or kilos of cocaine, the Mexican traffickers smuggled  Colombian cocaine into the United States. This strategic move allowed the Colombians to keep operating but with significantly less risk that DEA would immediately swoop down on them.

From then on, the pact between the Colombians and Mexican dealers resulted in 80-90 percent of cocaine smuggled into the United States. Capitalizing on success, Colombians used propelled planes with extra fuel tanks and stripped seats began landing on remote airstrips in Northern Mexico, hauling 600-800 kilos of cocaine per flight.

Toft explained that "most of the payment for the Mexican trafficker's services was with cocaine which enabled the Mexicans to distribute the cocaine throughout their own U.S. networks because the Colombians were not able to move cocaine through Mexico into the U.S. without the help of Mexican drug lords."

"All of this was already in the works before Escobar was killed, but once he was killed and later the Cali cartel were arrested the Mexican drug traffickers no longer feared Escobar, so they became more aggressive and eventually gained market share,"  Toft recalled this part of history between the Mexican and Colombian traffickers.

With high revenues increasing, and the Mexicans able to control specific trafficking routes and the wholesale prices, they consolidated into powerful cartels. Groups like the Gulf cartel, Juarez, Sinaloa and the Tijuana cartels emerged as heavy players in the cocaine trade.

Since then, the Mexican cartels evolved into vertically integrated, multinational illegal narco syndicates. Headquartered in Mexico, they have distribution arms in over 200 U.S. cities, plus they operate in Guatemala and other Central American nations. Although trafficking cocaine elevated the prestige and notoriety of Mexican cartels but they also distributed tons of meth, carried out human trafficking, sex trafficking, kidnappings and extortion.

It took a vicious murder to expose the political  inner-workings of the Mexican cartels and their savory grip on the entire Mexico government.  In February 1985, when Enrique "Kiki" Camarena (right), a U.S.-based DEA agent was kidnapped, tortured, and killed;  Camerena's brutal murder compelled the U.S. government to realize the gravity of corruption in Mexico. Mexico officials knew that  members of the Guadalajara cartel had murdered DEA Camarena to intimidate the United States government. The DEA investigation of Camarena uncovered massive corruption and direct involvement  in drug trafficking at all levels of the Mexican government.

Evidence uncovered showed that a Jalisco state police officers abducted Camarena, at the command of the Guadalarja cartel. The investigation also revealed the kidnappers and killers were protected by Mexico Federal Judicial Police(MFJP), an agency in charge of all federal police in each state, had, in fact, been bought off by drug cartels. Arrested and convicted on charges related to Camarena's death were, Rafael Caro Quintero, Ernesto Fonseca Carillo and Miguel Felix Gallardo.

Camarena's death, for years, strained relations between Mexico and Washington. "The decision (by traffickers) to kill a U.S. federal agent changed everything,"  said  Camarena's former supervisor James Kuyendall, during a interview with the LA Times, after one of the killers Rafael Caro Quintero was released from prison last year after serving 28 years. 

Camarena's death has been immortalize in Pop Culture and the subject of movies and documentaries.  Two notable shows made based on the life and death of Camarena were: Drug Wars: The Camarena Story and the History Channel documentary "Heroes Under Fire."

Proof of Colombian dope players still going strong in the game consider the following:

  1. This past May, Colombian police seized 2,350 kilos of cocaine stashed inside a boat valued at $125 million dollars.
  2. April 2014: Colombian police seized seven tons of cocaine headed for the Dutch port of Rotterdam.
  3. This year alone, Colombian police seized over 29 tons of cocaine.
  4. September 2014: DEA seized from Colombian traffickers--705 kilos of cocaine and 1.5 tons of marijuana.

If the cases mentioned above is not convincing enough to prove the Colombian traffickers remain a force in illegal narcotics, then consider the following story aired on CBS "60 Minutes" on June 16th 2013.

CBS "60 Minutes" reporter Laura Logan described the takedown of one of the latest drug syndicates operating in Colombia as well in Central America countries.

"Bigger than both the Medellin and Cali cartels combined, more powerful than the infamous Pablo Escobar---this Colombian cocaine empire with a reach so vast, and profits so great---it became known as the "Super Cartels,"   Logan said during the sensational episode. Responsible for the "Super Cartel" bust were Immigration Custom Enforcement Agency (ICE).

Ice agent Luis Sierra compared the three year investigation into the Colombian Super Cartel to a Fortune 500 company.  "They had their CEOs, and Vice Presidents with billions in assets,"  Sierra told 60 Minutes reporter Laura Logan. ICE investigation showed the Bogota-based operation supplied 42 percent of Colombian cocaine into the U.S., with approximately over 900 tons of cocaine sent to the U.S. over seven years, said ICE agent Sierra.

Evidence showed the high grade cocaine was manufactured in labs controlled by Colombian traffickers connected with the "Super Cartel" groups. The "Super Cartel" operation raked in so much money from cocaine sales until it took authorities a month to count the stacks of U.S. currency found in shipping containers filled with fertilizer which entered Colombia through Mexico. One particular seizure netted $41 million dollars.

"The amount of cash they (Super Cartel) move is unfathomable," said ICE agent Sierra, during the 60 Minutes program. Much of the cash were seized at the port of Buenaventura in Colombia.

"We've never seen anything like it...an organization operating on that scale,"   Sierra concluded.

Current cartel groups in Colombia are factions split into organizations without the notoriety of the previous Medellin, Cali cartel, and the Norte Del Ville cartel.

One such group called the "Oficina Envigado" syndicate is a prominent drug trafficking group that gradually emerged from the shadows of Pablo Escobar's cartel legacy.

This group, Envigado, was named after the small town near Medellin where Escobar grew up. Members began their career in the dope trade by becoming an enforcer for Escobar's Medellin's cartel. Erick Vargas Cardenas aka "Sebastian" headed the Envigado. On August 8th 2012,  Colombian police arrested "Sebastian" on a laundry list of narcotic charges.

According to Insightcrime.org, the arrest of Erick "Sebastian"  may have jeopardized the future of the "Oficina" syndicate, and could herald a major shift for organized crime in Medellin. But Colombian police and other intelligent sources said another  group called the "Urabenos" is steadily rising to power and could easily fill the gap left behind by "Sebastian" group. A drug trafficker named Henry de Jesus Lopez aka "Mi Sangre"  is the leader of the "Urabenos."

In June 2013, Colombia and U.S  government may have seized the largest amount of drugs and drug money in the history of the United States including Colombia. Both agencies seized over $1 billion dollars in cash and assets from two brothers identified as Ignacia Alvarez Meyendorff and Juan Fernando Meyendorff (right). 

What took authorities by surprise was the fact both brothers, previously linked to Colombia's Norte del Valle cartel, managed to build a power base in the cocaine trade while operating directly under the nose of the Colombian and U.S. government drug trafficking interdiction. Juan Meyerdoff, the younger brother,  turned himself over to U.S. authorities in April 2013.

Authorities confiscated the following assets:

  • Over 200 different properties in Colombia with an estimated value of $700 million dollars, leading the officials responsible for the raids to describe it as "the biggest blow inflicted in history."
  • With over 80 more properties under review for seizure as well as another 65 properties in Argentina, authorities predicts that the value of the asset will exceed $1 billion dollars.

Authorities said based on police  intelligence and informants that the the Meyendorff brothers rose to prominence in the Colombian underworld during the 1990s'  under the guidance of Victor Patino, the Insight article further pointed out, and that the brothers also worked closely with trafficker Daniel "El Loco" Barrera. "El Loco" Barrera is the leader of the Rastrojos syndicate.

Later, the Meyendorff brothers along with Don Lucio and "El Loco" Barrera formed the "Eldorado Cartel", a group responsible for shipping tons of cocaine into the U.S. and Europe. Rumors swirled like a hurricane twist among dope players in Colombia, Argentina and throughout Central America: if Don Luchio or "El Loco" Barrera gave the brothers up--or if investigators developed other valuable sources to build a case against the Meyendorff clan.

One thing is sure, the brothers, along with Don Lucio, went virtually unnoticed as they laundered up to $5 billion dollars in drug money through Colombian soccer clubs, while Juan Meyendorff, the younger brother, is accused of overseeing the shipment of over 68 tons of cocaine transported by submarines or flown by aircraft  into the United States between 2005 and 2011.

The Future Of Colombian Cartels

Since the bygone era of the Cali and Medellin cartels the cocaine business, for a while, declined to a slower pace of distributing narcotics into the U.S.   Meanwhile other players formed groups to fill the void left behind by the tattered larger organizations. Colombian drug dealers these days prefer to operate below the radar  and not attract heavy attention from authorities by engaging in killings and bombings.

Professor Correra-Cabrera summed up the future of Colombian drug players and Super Cartels this way.  "It's interesting to mention that even if they are weakened for some time, as it was the case with the Colombian cartels in the past, they will reorganize themselves, make some alliances with actors like the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

"If there is a market, especially an illegal market with high revenues (due to prohibitions), drug cartels will continue to exist; they will reinvent themselves, reconfigure their activities, and become influential again."

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