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Drug trafficking has long embedded itself in Colombia’s civil conflict, hiding among, and subverting, the warring factions. Now as the civil conflict draws down, with just the ELN still in the field, drug trafficking is mutating once again. This time Colombia’s drug lords realize that their best protection is not a private army, but anonymity. That is why we are calling the fourth generation of drug traffickers in Colombia “The Invisibles.”

In 2013 many heralded a turning point in the war on drugs in Colombia as plummeting cocaine production was coupled with dismantling of the great drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). The United States and Colombia celebrated the success of “Plan Colombia.” The accepted wisdom was that the Mexicans now ran the shrinking wholesale cocaine trade and that their day was coming.

This “success” was a mirage. Today the cocaine trade in Colombia is more buoyant than ever before, with production at record levels and new international markets being exploited. Colombian drug traffickers have learned that violence is bad for business. The new generation of traffickers have learned that anonymity is the ultimate protection, that “plata” (“silver”) is infinitely more effective than “plomo” (“lead,” as in bullets). The Colombians have ceded the world’s biggest market, the United States, to the Mexicans. This is not a sign of weakness but rather a savvy business move.

This article is part of an investigation carried out for the Colombian Observatory of Organized Crime, which is coordinated by the InSight Crime Foundation and Universidad del Rosario’s Faculty of Political Science, Government and International Relations (FCPGRI). The information was collected by a multidisciplinary team of 12 researchers in visits to more than 146 municipalities.

Drug trafficking to the US market is not good business. The risks of interdiction, extradition and seizure of assets are high, while wholesale prices are between $20,000 and $25,000 a kilogram. The Colombians prefer to look to Europe where a kilogram of cocaine is worth over $35,000, or China ($50,000) or Australia ($100,000). The risks are lower and the profits higher. It is simply good business.

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Today’s Colombian drug trafficker is more likely to be clad in Arturo Calle than Armani, wear classic European shoes rather than alligator boots, drive a Toyota rather than a Ferrari, live in an upper middle class apartment rather than a mansion with gold taps. He will have the face of a respectable businessman. Forty years after Pablo Escobar industrialized the drug trade, we now see a new generation of traffickers who learned from their fathers and even grandfathers. They are plying their multimillion-dollar business off the radar, without attracting any attention. Nowadays it is almost impossible to separate the dirty money from the clean after 50 years of increasingly sophisticated money laundering with investment in every facet of Colombia’s economy. Today’s drug lord will never touch a kilogram of cocaine, much less wield a gold-plated 9 mm pistol. His weapon is an encrypted cellphone, a diverse portfolio of legally established businesses, an intimate knowledge of world finance. He is an Invisible and he forms the heart of the fourth generation of drug trafficking in Colombia.

What has prompted the latest evolution of Colombia’s drug trade?

  1. Departure of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) from the criminal stage.
  2. Weakening of the last nationwide criminal network of the Urabeños (also known as the Clan del Golfo or the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia).
  3. The battering of the visible structure of the Oficina de Envigado.
  4. The Pax Mafiosa in Colombia ensuring that violence falls even as cocaine production, and other illegal economies, strengthen.
  5. Weak implementation of the peace agreement, driving FARC rebels back into the illegal economies and undermining the peace process with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).
  6. Record levels of cocaine production.
  7. The emergence of a new criminal network, the ex-FARC mafia, made up of dissidents, FARCRIM and the “hidden FARC.”
  8. The increased efficiency of Colombian intelligence and their ability to effectively target identified drug traffickers.
  9. A division between the pure blood (“pura sangre”) narcos and the military apparatus of drug trafficking.

The drug trade is the most agile business on the planet. Managing billions of dollars and able to defy national and international law enforcement, it adapts to changing conditions far more quickly than governments and security forces. It learns from its mistakes in what is the world’s most unforgiving and brutal markets. And the conditions today and until 2019 are in their favor thanks to a variety of national and international factors:

  1. The election year in Colombia. No serious policy or strategic decisions are going to made now until the new president has made himself at home in the Casa de Nariño in early 2019.
  2. The collapse of Venezuela and the criminalization of the Chavista regime under President Nicolás Maduro, which has huge implications for criminal dynamics in Colombia.
  3. Neighbors, Panama, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru have all been hit by high level corruption charges undermining legitimacy of government and distracting governments from the fight against transnational organized crime (TOC).
  4. A lack of direction from Washington, combined with friction sown by President Trump with key anti-narcotics allies like Mexico and Colombia (the public threat of decertification).
  5. Total lack of unity among Latin nations on how to tackle the cocaine trade.
  6. The spreading of the cancer of corruption across Latin America and the Caribbean, creating yet more opportunities for TOC and the cocaine trade.

What does the future of the cocaine trade in Colombia look like?

  1. The development of a new criminal network made up of former members of the FARC, which may come to dominate the production of cocaine in Colombia.
  2. The increasing infiltration of drug trafficking into the ELN, further weakening command and control, discipline and ideology. This threatens the prospects for peace.
  3. Top drug traffickers becoming more and more clandestine.
  4. An increasing sophistication of Colombian TOC, learning the lessons of 40 years evading national and international law enforcement.

This article is part of an investigation carried out for the Colombian Observatory of Organized Crime, which is coordinated by the InSight Crime Foundation and Universidad del Rosario’s Faculty of Political Science, Government and International Relations (FCPGRI). The information was collected by a multidisciplinary team of 12 researchers in visits to more than 146 municipalities.

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