Daniel Barrera's arrest is a hollow victory in the 'war on drugs'

The Guardian, Comment, 21.9.12


Details are fast emerging of the web of corruption spun by the Colombian cocaine trafficker Daniel "El Loco" Barrera to cover the traces of his empire. Barrera was arrested on Wednesday morning – by that evening Colombian anti-drugs police had begun forfeiting the 500 front companies, property investments and small businesses that Barrera used to launder the vast sums he made from cocaine smuggling over the past 20 years.

Barrera was one of Colombia's biggest traffickers. The Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, called him "the last of the great capos". His arrest is being celebrated in Colombia as a second major blow to the traffickers, coming three months after Venezuelan authorities arrested another big name cocaine trafficker, Diego Perez Henao, aka Diego Rastrojo.

But while Santos has good reason to be cheered, future court hearings are likely to raise awkward questions about how the capos avoided detection for so long, as well as the efficacy of the war on drugs.


Barrera and Rastrojo are part of the second generation of Colombian cocaine traffickers, who learned how to duck under the radar of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in the years following the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993. Both were adept at striking production and trafficking agreements not only with the Farc guerrillas, but the rightwing paramilitary armies that sprang up to combat them in the 1990s.


Colombia's civil war predates the cocaine business by at least 50 years. But thanks to the cocaine business, its illegal armed groups have been kept afloat and all attempts at negotiating a lasting peace have ended in failure.


Until recently, the DEA and the Colombian army focused their efforts on the Farc. Under the auspices of Plan Colombia, which Bill Clinton signed off in 1999, Colombia's army and police have received billions of dollars from Washington. This has funded a dramatic expansion of their reach and effectiveness. Colombia's eastern plains, where Barrera and Rastojo were based, were home to several Farc fronts and paramilitary groups in 1999. Now they are largely in the hands of the army.


But military solutions to the cocaine business have displaced, rather than weakened it. As aerial fumigation planes drive coca yields down in Colombia, the slack has been taken up by growers elsewhere. Cultivation has been driven into the isolated Andean valleys of southern Colombia, where the Farc and paramilitary units such as the Black Eagles continue to fight for control of the business. As the army goes after them, cultivation has moved to Peru and Bolivia.


President Santos has admitted that this "balloon effect" renders any triumphalism premature. His ambassador to the UK, Mauricio Rodriguez, says that for anti-drugs initiatives to be effective, more needs to be done to tackle money laundering – a welcome change of tack.

In their rush to fight a "war on drugs and terrorists", the White House insists that the "narco-guerrillas" are the biggest cartel of them all. The money trail certainly leads into the coffers of the Farc. But the paramilitaries have benefitted from drug money to an even greater extent than their enemies, and through them the money trail ultimately leads to the many local politicians and business owners in Colombia who fund and are funded by cocaine smuggling.


It is a grotesque irony of the "war on drugs" that law enforcement seems to embed rather than uproot the cocaine business. Most traffickers saw the weaknesses inherent in the cartel model after Pablo Escobar was gunned down on a Medellin rooftop 19 years ago. Today there are thousands of mini-cartels at work in Colombia, each handling a single stage in the production cycle. They know little about their suppliers or clients, which means that when they are busted, they can implicate nobody and the link in the chain is quickly bridged.


Colombia certainly produces less cocaine than it did when Plan Colombia came into effect in 1999. The Colombian end of the business is considerably less violent and Colombian investors are rushing back to Medellin and Cali. This gives some cheer to Colombians, as well as foreign investors and tourists, who are travelling to one of the most beautiful countries in Latin America in increasing numbers.


But the "war on drugs" has taught Colombian narcos another trick: better to leave the riskiest and most lucrative stage – smuggling cocaine into the US – to the Mexicans. As a result, Mexican cities such as Nuevo Laredo, which was relatively peaceful in 2002, are now a war zone. Thus, another victory for those striving for a "drug-free world" inadvertently leads to another blow for law enforcement somewhere else on the route between drug producer and drug consumer.


There is still no prospect of achieving what the "war on drugs" set out to achieve: driving up prices so much that cocaine users can no longer afford the stuff. Instead, President Santos's success in fighting the cocaine business has only shunted it into countries with worse-funded armies and police forces.


As another drug kingpin bites the dust, we shouldn't be diverted from admitting the unintended consequences of successful police work. Somewhere in Colombia's eastern plains, Daniel Barrera's lieutenants will be vying to take his crown. Mexico's capos will be awaiting his call.


see The Guardian's original publicaiton.