Revolution in Colombia, part three: guerrillas and cocaine

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Aug 9 12:50:27 MDT 1999

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

"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

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

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

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

Louis Proyect

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