Context: Research for Cocaine: An Unauthorised Biography
Location: Washington DC
Date: 18th July 2002
Interviewee: DEA Agent #1
This interview, with a senior DEA agent who will no doubt wish to remain anonymous (if you’re reading this, recognise yourself, and would like me either to name you or to remove the transcript altogether, let me know!), took place in Washington DC in the summer of 2000.
The agent, who had nearly 30 years’ experience, was regarded as one of the Agency’s pre-eminent experts on cocaine cartels. He chats here about the rise and fall of the Medellin Cartel, and the subsequent rise of Cali. He then makes an extremely pertinent comment about Mexican cartels’ involvement with cocaine and appears to predict (entirely accurately, as it turns out) that Mexico was going to head the way of Colombia unless something was done about it. Ten years after the interview took place, exactly that has happened.
Download: Download Interview (PDF)
What is a drug cartel? Isn’t the term something of a misnomer? Can’t it generate publicity of the wrong sort?
The fact is there is a lot of debate over whether or not law enforcement should use the term ‘cartel’. ‘Cartel’ came into vogue I think in the late 70s. What happened is cocaine organisations started out rather small – there really wasn’t a cocaine industry in the United States in the early 70s, for example. It wasn’t the preferred drug of abuse. Preferred drugs of abuse were: marijuana, heroin was very popular, methamphetamine, uppers, downers, LSD, hallucinogens. Very popular in the early 70s – a carry-over from the 60s.
The Colombian organised crime groups begin to get involved on an important scale in the early 70s. Essentially they wrestled the business away from Chileans and others, who had been dabbling in it. But nobody was making a whole lot of money. It really was kind of a niche market for that particular drug [cocaine]. And I think in those days it might have been popular in the arts community and so on but at that stage cocaine wasn’t really a preferred drug of abuse. Of course, all that would change over the course of the following decade. And over the course of that decade, certain groups based in Medellin and Cali began to grab increasingly important shares of the cocaine market and essentially took over and perfected the business of cocaine trafficking in the United States. They were assisted I think in part by an epidemic of a drug called crack. When people first began to realise there was a way to smoke this drug, and what they didn’t realise when they began to smoke it is how addictive it was in that form.
So the cartels, these organised crime groups, had a little bit of luck in that this drug that kind of had a little niche market – the market had now expanded and there was a huge demand for the product in the US. All that coincided with two groups essentially – two or more but two were paramount in this business. And they were able, through traditional organised crime methods, to control the transportation. They controlled the wholesale industry both in Colombia and in the United States, and they began to expand and feed on this market that was demanding this drug in the form of crack. And so over the course of that time two groups emerged, the Medellin Cartel and the Cali Cartel. There were some smaller groups … in other parts of Colombia but the two pre-eminent organised crime groups in Colombia who surfaced as the billionaires in the 80s were from two opposing cities, Medellin and Cali.
Somewhere along the line someone coined the term ‘cartel’. I don’t know where but it seemed to fit because they were truly on top, they were able to regulate the amount of drugs and they were able to regulate price if they wanted to. But generally the market drove the price and it just became a popular term – it began to get popular usage. But are they the same as a traditional cartel like OPEC or something like this? No. And in fact certain law enforcement people felt that the term glamorised the trade and so they preferred to use more traditional verbiage for that – call them mafias or syndicates or organised crime groups, or whatever.
The leadership of the Medellin cartel – power was concentrated at that level of gangster. And much like your traditional organised crime groups they broke down very much like that. In my view the Medellin Cartel – Pablo Escobar, who would emerge as the boss of bosses of the Medellin cartel – established an organisation that ran not unlike the kind of organisation Al Capone ran. Negotiation always ended at the end of a gun. If you went along with him, we’ll become rich together. If not, and you have a disagreement, then somebody’s gonna die. And by the time Escobar died in ’92, he had probably sent to the grave certainly thousands of Colombian police officers, judges, magistrates, prosecutors – you name it. Presidential candidates – and thousands of Colombian citizens.
But they were ALL violent, right? Any more than others?
They were certainly all violent. The least violent were the Ochoas [of Medellin] but even so, they were violent as well… You can’t survive in that business if you’re not violent. This is not a business for a negotiator. Were they party to Escobar’s plan to declare war against his own government? I don’t know if they sat down and had a meeting and he said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna declare war against the government, are you with me or against me?’ – but certainly they didn’t oppose it and they were paying their taxes…
[Escobar had yet to rise to prominence in the early 1970s but] in those days we were working on groups from Medellin who would later become important traffickers (read Kings of Cocaine [by Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen] – it does a good history no doubt. That may be the most accurate thing written about the cocaine cartels in the 70s and into the 80s.)
But at the time cocaine was seen as a benevolent drug – non-addictive, certainly. Were you and the DEA aware of the problem? Was there an awareness of the errors of the White House’s 1975 white paper?
… I was certainly aware and I think the bosses were aware and I think it was generally understood that this was gonna come back and bite us in the ass – by a lot of people.