Living the War on Drugs in Colombia During the 1980s

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canandian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School.

I was born in Bogotá in December 1969, and raised in a bicultural world, moving back and forth between Colombia and Texas.  My Colombian mother and my American dad introduced me, unintentionally, to a certain complexity that generated in me a unique way of looking at the world. I do not remember much from my first seven years, just some constructed ideas from old photos. There are plenty of foggy memories that are not tied to a story that has a beginning or an end. Surprisingly, one of my first vivid memories from early childhood is a man being forcefully dragged out of his home by two men, as two other men with face covers restrained his wife and daughter. It was a six or seven second scene, before my mom drove away as the traffic light changed, in a busy neighborhood street, in the northern part of Bogotá.  

Ten years later, after one of the many deadly detonations of bombs in Bogotá ordered by Pablo Escobar, I connected the two incidents.  It was then that I realized that I was in the middle of the American War on Drugs.  I was a teenager at that point, fighting for my freedom and independence, and arguing against my family-imposed lockdown. The current COVID-19 situation brought back that feeling of confinement; I could not go out at night and my mobilization was limited to going to school and back home because the danger and threat were invisible, but the consequences were real. 

When I lived in the middle of the American War on Drugs, I did not fully comprehend what that meant. In Colombia the general argument was simple: if Americans and others from the West stopped sniffing cocaine, then there would not be a demand and therefore supply would be reduced. It was only later, when I was in college in the U.S., that I discovered the other side of the argument: that if Colombians stopped trafficking cocaine to America, then there would be no demand. Today, I strongly support the Colombian argument, but that I will leave for another blog entry.

Colombia, and Bogotá to be more specific, was surreal in the 1980s. Luxury, wealth, and opulence were everywhere. As an American, I had the privilege of attending one of the top private high schools in the city, and it was there that I got to see cocaine for the first time. Colombian teenagers were only interested in getting drunk, and occasionally taking a hit or two from a joint as an act of rebellion; it was the Canadian and American kids that were into cocaine. Their dollar-based allowance stretched far when it was converted to Colombian pesos. Fifty American dollars was quite a bit of money, and that made cocaine quite accessible, considering that a gram only cost two to three dollars in those days. Even today cocaine’s street price in Colombia continues to be ridiculously low, perhaps because of low local demand, since, at the end of the day, Colombians like their booze.

Under the constant threat of violence, people lived for the day, forgetting about the luxury of planning for tomorrow. Every day was a celebration of life, an excuse to party.  Discotheques, bars, restaurants, fast food chains, and imported retail of all sorts were popping up across the city, indiscriminate of status or social class. Construction was booming, new commercial sectors were rapidly being constructed across the city, and a very different Bogotá was forming than what the city was in the 1970s.  Limited economic growth and development under Import Substitution Industrialization policies was replaced by a neoliberal economic boom that was spearheaded by drug money.

Even the professional soccer teams were on fire, contracting some of the best Latin American stars. It was awesome to attend the El Campín stadium, and watch the likes of Funes, Falcioni, Gareca, Cabañas, and multiple other international stars that should have been playing in Europe but were instead attracted by the Colombian dollar boom.  By the late 1980s you could replicate the comforts of an advanced industrial nation in Colombia, of course, if you had the means.  By that point you could be a narco connected to one of the multiple regional cocaine cartels, you could make your money in the world of money laundering or you could, as an entrepreneur, capitalize on the rising purchasing power of Colombians and the foreigners that were also benefiting from the bonanza.  

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America de Cali football team

A new entertainment zone in the more opulent side of the city popped up during this new temporal and spatial dimension of Colombia’s history.  The Zona Rosa became the epicenter of partying, drinking, smoking weed, and consuming cocaine. Not just any cocaine, either–good uncut cocaine, high quality perica, as my American and Canadian high school buddies used to say.  On one occasion, one of them, who was a regular at Pipeline, one of the first bars to open up in the Zona Rosa, told me that the cocaine was pure and uncut, not like what was sold back in Alberta. You did not need to travel to New York City or Miami to experience the scenes from Scarface; you just needed to be in Bogotá. Foreigners and Bogotá’s one percenters made sure to replicate the scenes locally.

There was also a new bar scene in the Eastern side of the city, where the eucalyptus-covered mountains were replaced by flamboyant bars and discotheques with a beautiful panorama of the northern part of the city.  It was common to cross paths with the nouveau riche there, and although I never experienced this, it was normal for the establishments to be locked down by some of the most distinguished historical characters of the drug war that, for their security, would close the place down for themselves. If you were lucky or unlucky to be inside, the conditions announced by the DJ were simple; that nobody could leave the establishment and that all expenses were paid for by the anonymous guest for the night. For any attractive girls in the club, they might get picked up by the narco, and their partner would be made an offer they couldn’t refuse.  

Occasionally a bomb would explode, a dead corpse would appear in the middle of the street or someone in your social circle would become a direct victim of the American Drug War. You did not have to be directly involved in drug trafficking to feel the impact of the war. Drugs, money, power, and opulence corrupted the minds of hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions. The quick road out of poverty introduced by the world of narcotics resulted in a new culture of crime and violence. Kidnapping, extortion, and theft became part of the new realities of the 1980s.  

[DAS Building bombing in Bogotá, December 6, 1989]

One of my close friends was shot eight times and survived to tell the story. Late one night, while making a phone call in a public phone, a taxi quickly pulled up next to him and three men dragged him into the cab. While searching him and interrogating him, they drove to the shanties where they decided to end him because he did not have much in his pockets. He was forced to climb down a sewer hole and, as he was climbing down, two of the three men emptied their revolvers as his body fell deep into the hole. In his desperation, he climbed back up, and because it was not his day to die, a cab driver picked him up and took him to a hospital where they saved his life.  

It was a scary situation, but it was a common story. That generation was desensitized, I must admit. Growing up during the American Drug War in Colombia was a character builder; it left a deep mark. I still live for the day and celebrate life every morning; something that is now part of the self-reflection of many across the world as we move past the COVID-19 crisis.

Looking back, I was naïve about the geopolitical context that surrounded me and the violence that still remains fresh in my mind.  I am occasionally reminded of this period of my life, thanks to the negative stigma from the letters in my US passport that say, “Place of Birth: Colombia.” The body search at airports, the targeting of immigration officers in the U.S., the emerging pop culture surrounding the American War on Drugs, and all the other stereotypes and misconceptions are a constant reminder that people have it all wrong. It is more than Colombians: the drug war is about poverty, marginalization, social disenfranchisement, and the Western addiction to drugs. It is a problem of capitalism, a reinforcement of the idea that money corrupts. It is not the world constructed by Tom Clancy, Tom Cruise or Brancato, Bernard and Miro, the producers of Narcos; it is the world of real humans that had to and continue to fight a foreign war designed to cover up the addictive desires of the Western world as well as the dark side of global capitalism.