Revolution in Colombia, part three: guerrillas and cocaine

The New York Times reported on Saturday August 7th, 1999 that the wife of the American officer in charge of anti-drug operations in Colombia was not only a cocaine addict, but had shipped nearly a quarter of a million dollars worth of the drug using diplomatic mailing privileges. Given the symbiotic relationship between the USA as a major customer of nervous system intoxicants and Colombia as its number one supplier for the past century, this should have come as no surprise. That the Times failed to explore these connections or point out the hypocrisy of a looming armed intervention in Colombia based on the excuse of eradicating drugs should also come as no surprise. This post shall try to make sense out of what the bourgeois press mystifies.

In my first post, I pointed out how America's coffee habit served to both fuel the expansion of the Colombian economy and distort it from the late 1800s through the mid-20th century. The same thing has happened more recently with respect to cocaine, even though one drug is illegal and the other is not. This was not always the case. When cocaine was first introduced, it was considered some kind of wonder drug and available with a doctor's prescription and over-the-counter in patent medicines.

Dr. David F. Musto, a psychiatric clinician and medical historian at Yale University, and author of ''The American Disease,'' points out that among the most prominent early promoters of cocaine for medicinal purposes was Sigmund Freud, who used it and prescribed it to try to cure his friend and colleague Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow of opium addiction. In his famous essay ''On Coca'' in 1884, Freud wrote that cocaine ''wards off hunger, sleep and fatigue and steels one to intellectual effort.'' Freud wrote that in dozens of tests on himself, he had experienced no adverse side effects and that even with repeated doses cocaine was not habit-forming. In "Why Freud Was Wrong," author and physician Richard Webster speculates that many of Freud's key "discoveries" were made when he was loaded on cocaine since they demonstrate the typical grandiosity of someone who has had one blow too many.

Other cocaine devotees included Pope Leo XIII, Thomas Edison, Sarah Bernhardt, Emile Zola, Henrik Ibsen and the Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VII. Cocaine became popular as the methadone of its day: a supposedly harmless, non-addictive drug that could be substituted to satisfy the cravings for the opium derivatives such as morphine.

One of the most notable attempts to use cocaine in this way led directly to the formation of the Coca-Cola company, which to this day uses non-intoxicating residues of the coca leaf for flavor. John Smith Pemberton, the Civil War veteran and morphine addict who invented the drink in Atlanta in 1886, thought that the soft drink was the answer for old-fashioned American malaise, as well as being a good substitute for opium addiction, including his own. It was also intended to be a substitute for alcohol, which was under attack from the temperance movement. As his home town Atlanta was threatening to soon go dry, he saw the need for a soft drink which might prove as a substitute for beer, wine and whiskey. His solution, a fruit-flavored sugar syrup which combined the caffeine kick of the kola nut and the narcotic buzz of the coca leaf, was initially designed to be mixed with plain water. Only when it was diluted with seltzer did it become the monstrously successful drink that eventually dominated world markets. It can also be used to remove rust from automobile radiators reputedly.

Later on, when cocaine became popular in black and working-class communities, it became stigmatized and forced off the pharmacy shelves. This was analogous to the shift in attitudes when cocaine, especially crack cocaine, began to be seen as déclassé in the 1990s. Middle-class white people stopped sharing cocaine at discos since it was now perceived as a drug for "losers". A new drug took its place, namely Prozac. Once again in the zigzag patterns that typify American white Anglo-Saxon Protestant attitudes toward intoxicants, as long as a drug is sanctioned by the medical profession, it is considered okay even if it is habit-forming. Elvis Presley used to keep a copy of the Physician's Handbook of Pharmaceuticals next to his bed and order painkillers from his doctor. Because they were prescribed, he considered them to be medication rather than dope.

A December 5, 1993 Washington Post article by Jackson Lears, professor of history at Rutgers University, points out the analogies between Prozac use today and the craze for "feel good" patent medicines earlier in American history:

"By the early 1900s, some patent medicines had expanded their promises to encompass the demands of the managerial culture. They promised not merely relief from pain and restoration of lost health but a more general rejuvenation -- in keeping with the developing equation of success with youthful energy. 'To feel young again,' announced an ad for MOSKO silver pills in 1900, 'to realize the joyous sparkle of nerve life as it infuses the body with its growing vitality; to feel the magnetic enthusiasm of youthful ambition ... to be free from spells of despondency, from brain wandering, from the dull stupid feeling; to have confidence, self-esteem, the admiration of men and women' -- all of these revitalizations and liberations could be yours through MOSKO. Never mind that MOSKO pills probably contained a good dose of cocaine, their alleged properties sound remarkably like those experienced today by the more satisfied users of Prozac."

Colombia did not start out with cocaine production, but actually was a major producer of marijuana in the 1970s especially along the Atlantic Coast. The USA pressured Colombia to make war on the pot growers and was largely successful. By 1980, according to Jenny Pearce, more than 40 percent of marijuana was grown in the USA and Jamaica was supplying the remainder. The consequences for the Atlantic Coast of Colombia bereft of the marijuana trade income were devastating, as crime, unemployment and economic insecurity increased dramatically.

Relief came in the form of cocaine traffic, however. Coca grown in Peru and Bolivia was processed in Colombia to supply the new demand in North America. The cocaine trade eventually replaced coffee as the number one supplier of foreign revenue. In 1984 it is estimated that between 10 and 12 billion dollars was flowing into the Colombian economy due to the cocaine trade.

It was around this time that the Colombian drug Mafia joined forces with the ultraright against the guerrillas. For all of the allegations about partnership between the FARC and the drug traffickers, there is little attention paid to this recent history. The cocaine Mafia arrived late in Colombian society, but it followed exactly the same pattern as the coffee bourgeoisie. It financed both of the two major parties and private armies in defense of its class interests. This led to fierce intra-class clashes in the Colombian ruling class as it tried to both fight off and co-opt noveau riche Mafioso figures like Pablo Escobar. By the same token, the

Medellín and Cali cartels were not above using violence against bourgeois politicians who got in their way, including Rodrigo Lara, the Minister of Justice, who was assassinated in 1984 for pursuing traffickers too diligently.

But despite these family quarrels, the cocaine Mafia was determined to show its allegiance to old-fashioned Colombian values, especially anti-communism. Cocaine billionaire Carlos Lehder set up his own fascist party, the Movimiento Latino Nacional, to defend his interests on the vast acreage housing cocaine factories that he had bought up with drug profits. This outfit joined forces with the Movimiento Sanitario Amplio (MAS) to kill suspected guerrillas and left-wing politicians. In essence, these right-wing paramilitaries were simply continuing "La Violencia" but directing it against peasants who resisted cocaine capitalist expansion rather than coffee. When a Mafia gang bought land used for subsistence farming and evicted the peasants, it was necessary to deploy armed assassins to prevent the peasants and their guerrilla supporters from reclaiming their land.

It is important to understand that the cocaine industry also has the effect of fuelling the transformation of the peasantry into a proletariat and petty proprietors at the very same time it is displacing it from subsistence farming. In the early 1980s, according to Johns Hopkins Political Science professor Bruce Begley, over 500 thousand Colombians had jobs in the drug trade. In addition, Begley argues that the drugs have actually served to stabilize the Colombian political system and specifically compares their role in the economy to the introduction of the coffee industry in the mid-1800s:

"Due to marijuana and cocaine a new nouveau riche has developed in Colombia much as in the late and early twentieth centuries a coffee oligarchy developed in the country. Parts of the civil wars which were fought in the latter part of the nineteenth century, particularly the War of 1000 Days in Colombia, had something to do with the introduction of coffee and the socioeconomic changes that followed. Today, fairly conservative, often right-wing individuals link themselves frequently with MAS, with the military and with other organizations moving to legitimize themselves within the Colombian system, moving to gain status within that society, buying political power, Into the system if you like, but not to disrupt that system in any fundamental way. Nonetheless, there is this sense that the old families in Colombia which have controlled the politics since the late nineteenth century introduction of coffee are now gradually incorporating and absorbing the nouveau riche, the Carlos Lehders that rise, not necessarily in the first generation but rather in the second and third generations. The children of the drug dealers now join the major social clubs and marry into some of the more prestigious families. Many of these old families are precisely those families who were declining economically, and hence politically. With the introduction of coffee in the nineteenth century the new coffee barons also gradually married into more traditional, land-owning families, joining money and commercial agricultural exports with status within the society."

Begley's article, which appears in a 1985 collection, and Pearce's 1990 "Inside the Labyrinth," by far the best introduction to Colombian politics and society, both have little to say about guerrilla involvement with the cocaine trade because it had not become so pronounced as it is today. While the bourgeois press has endless articles on the guerrilla-cocaine connection, there are very few that locate it within the Colombian political economy. In effect this sensationalizes the problem in the way that out-of-context coverage of Serb mistreatment of the Kosovars sensationalized politics in the Balkans and led to NATO's intervention.

It is useful to supply the context for these connections. Put simply, why would left-wing guerrillas involve themselves with the cocaine trade? If drugs are symbols of capitalist oppression, especially crack cocaine in America's ghettos, why would a revolutionary organization tarnish itself by participating in the drug trade? For most of the 1980s, we learned of the contra-cocaine connection in Nicaragua, while Cuba tried and executed a general who had performed heroically in Angola for participation in the cocaine trade. Aren't the Colombian guerrillas to be condemned in the same terms?

One of the most important explanations for these connections is that the Colombian countryside has been transformed. In the 1980s, Colombia processed Peruvian and Bolivian coca leaves into cocaine, but today Colombian peasants grow the coca themselves. Sociologically, they fit the same profile as the Peruvian and Colombian peasants: they are small proprietors who have to deal with a violent and exploitative class of manufacturers who buy their raw materials and a government that protects the manufacturer's interests. Begley was correct as far as he went in his analysis. The cocaine bourgeoisie has become integrated into Colombian society, but the growers remain on the outside.

A June 17, 1999 Financial Times article reports that Colombia is now the world's largest producer of coca leaf, a title it has only held since 1997, while accounting for an estimated 80 per cent of the world's cocaine supply. US and Colombian authorities have been spraying their fields, with largely no effect since the drug is basically a hardy weed and easy to cultivate in new areas, like the jungle provinces of Putumayo and Vaupes that are further away from the anti-narcotics bases and are often beyond the reach of the spray aircraft. Instead it has devastated the orchards and cow pastures of poor farmers. The Financial Times states:

"But as farmers colonise ever remoter areas to avoid the spraying operations - clearing large swathes of virgin rain forest in the process - they are in no doubt that coca remains the only viable crop in the Amazonian region.

"'We call it the blessed plant because it is the only one which gives us enough to live on,' said a resident of Miraflores, in the south of Guaviare province. Some varieties of coca yield fresh leaves every 75 days. Legal crops like manioc or plantains, in contrast, only have two or three harvests a year.

"Other more specialised crops like rubber and African palm take eight years and four years respectively to yield the first harvest.

"In addition, the intermediaries who buy the coca - as semi-processed coca paste - pay in cash and collect the product from the farmers' doorstep. In provinces like Guaviare, which is larger than Switzerland but where there is only 5km of paved road, that solves the peasants' eternal problem of slow and expensive transport to get legal produce to market.

"'It does not matter how many times they spray, coca will always be more profitable than any other crop and that is why people grow more and more of it,' says Antonio, a coca farmer who lives near Miraflores."

Basically, these small coca growers are little more than subsistence farmers. They operate on the most marginal land, having been pushed to the side by commercial export agriculture sanctioned by the Colombian state. In order to survive, they plunge deeper and deeper into the rainforest, at great costs to their own lives and to the environment. All this is the consequence of Colombian society's inability to provide a decent standard of living for the poorest of its citizens. It should come as no surprise that the FARC has offered protection to such small growers. If they did not, it is likely that the greater cause of socialist revolution in Colombia would be sacrificed since peasants such as these are the life-blood of the revolution.

Putting aside pieties about the "drug war" aside, the relationship between the FARC and the coca growers is identical to that which obtained during "La Violencia". They defend the right of small proprietors to make a living growing intoxicants for the American marketplace. In one case, it was coffee; in the other it is coca. Their impact on the Colombian economy is about the same. And their place in the new cold war against drugs is about the same, once you de-sensationalize the whole topic. This is the intention of Alejandron Reyes, a Colombian scholar whose paper "The Geography of Political Violence and Drug Trafficking in Colombia" may be found on the Washington Office on Latin America's website (

"The coca-cultivating areas of Colombia are concentrated mainly in the departments of Guaviare, southern Meta, Caquetá, Putumayo, Cauca, and also in some areas of Magdalena Medio, Norte de Santander and Sierra Nevada de Santa MarIa. In the cultivation areas, FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerillas play exactly the same role in the informal economies I mentioned before. As cultivation of coca is an illegal economic structure not regulated by the state, the state does not apply the law, justice, or resolution of conflicts within the context of coca cultivation -- the FARC plays that role. So the presence of the FARC in the drug industry is to regulate the social economy, the peasant economy of cultivation. They require that drug dealers pay salaries to coca farmers.

"I do not agree with the idea of our Generals, both in the military and police, which say that in Colombia we have a narcoguerrilla. They are trying to identify two very different phenomena. The guerrillas are much deeper, longer-lasting, an informal state structure. The mafia business of drugs is a completely different issue. Guerrillas charge taxes to the drug industry; they are not mafias. They do not behave as mafias. Mafias seek to make money, to increase profits. Guerrillas charge taxes to the drug industry not for profit, but rather to increase the war machinery they have. So the phenomenon of guerrilla involvement with drugs is much deeper. They are not mafias--we cannot call them narcoguerrillas. The United States cannot commit the mistake of treating guerillas like drug mafias. Drug mafias are a different phenomenon which have to be dealt with on their own terms, as an illegal business, as mafias.

"If you attack militarily or if you provide military means to attack coca cultivators, you will engage the Colombian state and the United States in a very long-lasting war, a 'Vietnamization' of the war on drugs, which has a beginning but probably cannot have a happy ending, as Vietnam proved in the case of a war against a rural population. So please do not commit the mistake of uniting these two absolutely different phenomena."

Finally, it is imperative to make clear to the widest possible audience what the FARC has called for as a reasonable solution to the drug problem. They advocate a crop substitution program that respects the needs of the small grower to continue living. Whatever problems the FARC has, and they are considerable, its connection to the coca growers is not one of them.


Jenny Pearce, "Inside the Labyrinth", Zed Books, 1990

Pacini and Franquemont, "Coca and Cocaine", Cultural Survival, 1985 (Contains Begley article and other useful pieces with a political economy orientation).