Cocaine Cowboys- A Drug Story

On first glance, Cocaine Cowboys is an amusing documentary, one that candidly reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly of the cocaine era of 1980′s Miami. Yet, based on this week’s reading material, the story of drug trafficking and the resulting “War on Drugs” between the US and such countries as Peru, Bolivia and Colombia is clearly not amusing, but rather a serious threat and source of social and political degradation in many Latin American countries.

In her article “Collateral Damage,” Coletta A. Youngers argues that U.S. intervention in Latin America, in the form of the drug wars, “clearly hinders” ongoing efforts to create positive civilian-military relations abroad, which in turn hinders the development of democratic government (mentioning specifically the Medellín cartel of Colombia, which is the main source of cocaine for the dealers of Cocaine Cowboys). The U.S. government attempts to spread democracy in many Latin American countries, yet simultaneously promotes a “war on drugs,” which often actually increases military involvement in civilian activity and decreases transparency and accountability of military forces.

This lack of transparency and accountability of military forces in Latin America can be paralleled to the lack of transparency and responsibility on behalf of the police forces in Miami in the era of peak drug trafficking: many police persons were found to be guilty of somehow collaborating with drug traffickers, or were found to themselves be using cocaine or some other sort of illicit drug. Youngers confirms that the US government has been found to be financing (to the tune of millions of dollars) the counterinsurgency campaigns of Colombia (the result of the $1.3 billion “Plan Colombia” legislation, mid-1990s), many of which have been linked to “over three hundred thousand” paramilitary human rights-violating crimes in the country. Yet, ironically, this region is “the source of the bilk of illicit drugs that ultimately wind up on U.S. city streets,” as we see in Cocaine Cowboys (Youngers 128).

To complicate matters, cocaine production in Colombia  provides jobs (and did so legally up until the 1940s, Gootenberg 133) to “too many poor people” on land that is “too suitable for cocaine production” to be realistically considered for complete abolition or control. The cultivation of coca in Colombia has been referred to as “narco-terrorism” as cultivators and political dissidents are lumped into a single classification.

So the local business interests of a Medellín family in 1950s Colombia has somehow unleashed a full-fledged war between First World United States and Third World Latin America (Gootenberg 159). Colombia was literally “off the maps” for global police and studies before the early 1970s (Gootenberg 159).

What happened? After decades of “regional violence” and a struggle to keep up in a rapidly modernizing world, many Colombians turned to coca production after experiencing mild success with marijuana production for the U.S. in the early 1970s. This “concentrated, pricey, and elite substance” was already becoming trendy in many U.S. circles; it was the “wave of the future” (Gootenberg 175). And what is trendy and elite in the First World is often the means to an income for the Third World. And what is trendy and elite is often not sustainable, as we saw with the wave of killings and arrests in Miami in Cocaine Cowboys. The illicit trafficking of cocaine from Colombia to the U.S. may not be a sustainable cycle, yet the sponsorship of violent military campaigns and the destruction of peasant-owned agricultural fields is surely not either. The solution to this problem is complex, and is rooted in the re-establishment of political, social, and economic stability in both the U.S. and abroad.