Archive for April, 2012

Michael Kenney’s From Pablo to Osama explains how drug trafficking and terrorist networks persist in the face of hostile government efforts to destroy them.[1] Kenney contends that the resilience of the Colombian drug trade stems in part from the ability of smuggling enterprises to alter their activities in response to information and experience, store this knowledge in practices and procedures, and select and retain routines that produce satisfactory, if not necessarily optimal, results.[2] In short, narcos learn, building skills and changing practices in simple but effective ways that make it difficult for law enforcers to stop them. By compelling traffickers to develop new innovations, law enforcers encourage them to diversify their experiential knowledge and cunning intelligence while developing linkages with paramilitary and guerrilla groups in Colombia and trafficking networks in other countries.[3]

Most important, Kenney shatters the “cartel myth,” or the misconception that the Colombian cocaine trade was run by a handful of massive, vertically integrated cartels (Pablo Escobar, Jorge Ochoa, Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela) that restricted production and set international prices.[4] Instead, he demonstrates how drug trafficking in Colombia occurs in fluid social systems where flexible exchange networks expand and contract according to market opportunities and regulatory constraints.[5] He elucidates the historical roots of the modern drug trade, explaining how criminal entrepreneurs built their enterprises through personal contacts, resources, and repeated exchanges while drawing on social traditions, such as contraband smuggling, that extended far back into Colombia’s colonial past.[6] Moreover, traffickers decentralize decision-making authority and outsource their operations to a multitude of loosely connected criminal entities, from small farmers to coca processing labs, money launderers to exporters, and wholesalers to small distributors. Finally, Kenney contends that narcos will continue to outfox law enforcement because they must constantly innovate and adapt in order to survive. On the other hand, enforcement agencies face significant limitations in the degree to which they can decentralize their decision making and quicken information flows because they are beholden to the same standards of accountability and transparency that govern all U.S. government bureaucracies.[7]

Pablo Escobar Mug Shot

From Pablo to Osama makes an important contribution to the historiography of the international drug trade. Although a political scientist by training, Kenney builds upon the foundation laid down by Paul Gootenberg and Eduardo Saénz Rovner who first explained how Latin America’s historically well-established integration into international migration, commerce, and transportation networks, combined with political instability, judicial impunity, and government corruption facilitated the consolidation of drug trafficking networks in the region. Kenney’s book sheds light upon how these persistent conditions in Colombia enable traffickers to better learn and adapt ahead of their enemies. Moreover, traffickers in Colombia have established alliances with formidable, historical actors like the FARC and rightwing paramilitaries that continue to wage irregular warfare against the state and further complicate its efforts to control the drug trade.

Death of Pablo Escobar

Kenney is most persuasive when explaining the protean, fluid, and decentralized character of trafficking networks. His interviews with government informants and ex-kingpins in Miami prison facilities are nothing short of fascinating, providing a first hand account of how drug traffickers operate and adapt on the ground. He also comments upon the damning consequences of the “war on drugs,” particularly how it has created a counterdrug agencies and interagency enforcement networks in Colombia and the United States whose organizational prosperity depends in no small measure on maintaining the constancy of the threat posed by drug trafficking.[8] To preserve their institutional identity and protect their budgets, counterdrug agencies exploit the threat of drug trafficking, emphasizing the danger illicit drugs pose to the general public and highlighting their own efforts to dismantle smuggling networks in press releases and congressional hearings that celebrate their latest achievements in the war on drugs.[9]

Kenney is least persuasive in his comparative analysis of trafficking networks and terrorist systems. For instance, he claims that unlike terrorist groups, “trafficking enterprises generally do not seek to instill fear and dread in civilian populations, or to implement political change.”[10] However, in August 1989, Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel achieved precisely that when it assassinated Luis Carlos Galán, a rising political star and Liberal candidate for the presidency. Moreover, Mexican cartels like the Zetas have many political interests at stake and are suspected of financing PRI candidates over the hawkish, antidrug policies of the conservative PAN party.  Further historical research should explore the political aspirations and motives of narcotraffickers.


[1] Michael Kenney, From Pablo to Osama (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2007), 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 23.

[4] Ibid, 26.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kenney, 27.

[7] Kenney, 216.

[8] Kenney, 218.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 9.

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*All text courtesy of the National Security Archives*

The National Security Archive obtained the hand-written notebooks of Oliver North, the National Security Council aide who helped run the contra war and other Reagan administration covert operations, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 1989. The notebooks, as well as declassified memos sent to North, record that North was repeatedly informed of contra ties to drug trafficking.

On February 10, 1986, Robert Owen (“TC”), a liasion for the Contras, wrote North (this time as “BG,” for “Blood and Guts”) regarding a plane being used to carry “humanitarian aid” to the contras that was previously used to transport drugs. The plane belongs to the Miami-based company Vortex, which is run by Michael Palmer, one of the largest marijuana traffickers in the United States. Despite Palmer’s long history of drug smuggling, which would soon lead to a Michigan indictment on drug charges, Palmer receives over $300,000.00 from the Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Office (NHAO) — an office overseen by Oliver North, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, and CIA officer Alan Fiers — to ferry supplies to the contras.

-NSA

COLOMBIA 1

As early as the first Bush administration, the U.S. “Andean Strategy” was developed as a “deal” struck with Andean governments to provide them with counterdrug aid that could also be used against their principal adversary: the guerrillas.

Mexico

Posted: April 16, 2012 in Maps

Mexico

U.S. State Department: Mexico

Honduras

Posted: April 16, 2012 in Maps

Honduras

U.S. State Department: Honduras

El Salvador

Posted: April 16, 2012 in Maps

El Salvador

U.S. State Department: El Salvador

Western Hemisphere

Posted: April 16, 2012 in Maps

Western Hemisphere

U.S State Department: Western Hemisphere