Pushing Around the Problem: Colombia’s ‘War’ on Micro-trafficking

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Eight months after the opening salvos in Colombia’s new war against micro-trafficking, residents in affected areas say the results have been an explosion in open drug use outside their homes, schools and businesses, while drug sales remain unaffected. The story is, in many ways, illustrative of the challenges ahead for much of the region as it faces down increasing local drug consumption.

In June this year, police declared success in the two month blitz targeting street level drug sales points known locally as “ollas,” or “holes,” in an operation to mark the beginning of Colombia’s “total war” on micro-trafficking.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos hailed the results and declared: “The war against micro-trafficking…is not going to stop for a single second.”

However, the streets in one of the main battlegrounds in this war — the central district of Colombia’s second city of Medellin — tell a different story.

Slumped in the doorways, benches and gutters of the Villa Nueva neighborhood that is the epicenter of Medellin’s hard drug use are the casualties of Colombia’s domestic drug boom. Ragged and glassy eyed, most openly smoke the cocaine paste known as “bazuco,” others shoot heroin or huff glue, while all are oblivious to both residents and police.

“Now the problem of drug consumption and dealing is more visible because they have taken the addicts out of these properties, which they have sealed and begun seizure proceedings; and all the children, men, women and old people are out wandering the streets,” said Edal Aldniel Yurient Monsalve Bran, a local resident and community leader, with decades of experience working with the area’s deprived communities.

“The administration has said they are doing these interventions, but what is their plan for these people?” He added. “There isn’t one — they took 200–300 drug addicts out of these properties, and they threw them into the street.”

According to residents, while the police seized and sealed buildings once used as ollas, the addicts’ supply of drugs has been unaffected. Transactions now take place through the closed doors of derelict buildings, with handfuls of coins begged off charitable citizens slipped under the door, and another cheap hit dispensed.

“They closed six drug dens here in Barbacoas,” said another local resident and community leader, who did not wish to be indentified for security reasons. “And what a show it was, with all the cameras and the president talking about a grand intervention and investment, but if you look at the problem now, it’s just moved over one block.”

According to the community leader, the area’s residents say the police targeted drug users but left the dealers and the gangs responsible for micro-trafficking alone. 

“These heavies are still there. They’re still carrying out their business, still doing everything they did before, and these people have their connections — who are the authorities themselves,” she said.

The Medellin police did not respond to InSight Crime’s requests for an interview and further information on their operations against micro-trafficking. And there are no known investigations into police corruption in the area.

Several blocks away from Villa Nueva is a different type of olla but a similar story. Parque Periodista is a small plaza surrounded by bars and is the city center’s main recreational drugs olla. In contrast to the harder drugs and addicts of Villa Nueva, both sale and consumption of drugs in Parque Periodista is limited to marijuana and powdered cocaine.

It is a popular spot with the city’s “alternative” scene and youth seeking something other than the polished glitz of the up market Poblado district. At night, a thick cloud of marijuana smog hangs over the park, while dealers work the crowds. Police sporadically appear, but only to confiscate small quantities off drugs from youths, while the dealers stand in the shadows and watch.

Periodista’s regulars say the impact of the police operation was brief. At first, the dealers’ presence became sporadic, and they would disappear and reappear briefly throughout the night. Supplies also faltered, with the park’s customers saying the dealers would often run out of one or the other of their wares. However, the difficulties were temporary, they say. Within months, it was like nothing had happened — the same faces selling the same drugs.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Santos government has listed micro-trafficking as one of the country’s three gravest security threats, ranking it alongside leftist guerrillas and the narco-paramilitary groups it calls the BACRIM (from “bandas criminales” or “criminal bands”). And it is a problem: An estimated 20 percent of cocaine and 70 percent of marijuana produced in Colombia is now consumed domestically.

The trade fuels every level of the Colombian underworld, from the gangs that run the ollas, to the BACRIM and guerrillas involved in drug production and wholesale services.

The government’s response has been to ramp up military rhetoric and security operations in what Police Chief Jose Roberto Leon Riaño has described as “an irreversible frontal assault.”

The statistical breakdown of the results of the opening surge of this assault, called “Operation Green Heart,” (“Corazon Verde”) is, at first glance, impressive. Police announced over the two months they conducted 314 raids in which they confiscated 780,067 doses of illicit drugs and arrested 1,641 people — among them 42 leaders of micro-trafficking networks — and closed down 23 ollas.

However, a simple walk through the center of Medellin, day or night, highlights the limitations of the approach. The most that success raids, seizures, and roundups can lay claim to is displacing the issue — sometimes by just a few a meters.

And it is not just Medellin. Research carried out by Bogota-based think-tank Fundacion Ideas Para la Paz (FIP) after the operation suggests the results have been similar in Colombia’s other main urban centers, Bogota and Cali.

In Bogota, much of the attention was focused on the notorious area known as the Bronx, the city’s biggest open air drug market (see maps below). During the operation, President Santos and Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro staged a press conference from the zone, holding it up as the operation’s poster child.

However, according to FIP, while the operation has led to a cleanup of the space, and has led to a reduction in the number of children who frequent it, the volume of drug sales and drug prices remain unaffected. Meanwhile, the capture of the Bronx’s main criminal capo, Rigoberto Arias Castrillon, alias “Rigo,” has had little impact as he has continued to run operations from prison.

Across the three cities, FIP’s investigations reveal that for the most part the addicts that were dispersed in the operations begun to return to the same traditional drug hotspots as soon as the authorities left. The majority of the ollas have moved, reorganized and simply reopened, suggesting that while vendors might have been arrested, the criminal networks they work for remain intact.

(FIP maps illustrating the police intervention in Bogota; click bottom right hand corner to enlarge.) 

The lessons are clear: Rounding up street level users and dealers does little to address the issues of growing drug use, and drug production — both far greater challenges than closing down drug sales points, which will spring back quickly as long as the drugs and the users are present. 

Nor is this a Colombia only story. From Brazil to Mexico, Latin America is facing a startling rise in drug consumption, especially cocaine derivatives of the type found in the ollas. A 2012 Organization of American States report said that half of the cocaine processed in the region is now consumed in Latin America. 

Nevertheless, the government is pushing forward with its “total war.” Immediately after the conclusion of Operation Green Heart, President Santos announced its extension, with a new list of 25 more ollas to be targeted. What he did not mention is that the police have now identified over 3,350 more ollas around the country.

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