Researchers called it the most addictive substance known to man. Heroin could not compare to cocaine in terms of an addict's fierce cravings. Cocaine, also known as coke, C, snow, blow and Bolivian marching powder, could be inhaled, ingested, smoked and taken intravenously. Initially described as the white-collar drug of choice, it soon permeated all levels of American society. Relatively inexpensive "crack" became the scourge of the inner city. Unlike heroin, opium and morphine, which are depressants, cocaine is a stimulant. Like amphetamines, it raises blood pressure, body temperature and pulse rate. It acts like a massive dose of adrenaline, leaving the user feeling confident, mentally sharp and full of energy. An alkaloid derived from the leaves of Erythroxylum coca, a tropical shrub, it excites (as well as incapacitates) neurons in the central and sympathetic nervous system. It affects the dopamine synapses, the so-called "pleasure circuits." But after an intensely vivid and euphoric high lasting from ten to thirty minutes, a severe letdown often entails lassitude, anxiety and depression, leaving the user desiring another "hit." Some users relied on sedatives like methaqualone (of which tons were illegally imported from Colombia) to calm down after a high and reduce their yearning for another hit. Others mixed heroin with the cocaine, a process called "speedballing;" the coke-induced euphoria is offset by the downer effect of the heroin. Lab tests proved that cocaine is an extremely potent reinforcer; monkeys who got a dose by pulling a lever would forego food and sex and continue pulling the lever for several days -- until they went into convulsions and died.
The effects could be just as devastating to humans. A 1986 study showed that cocaine-related deaths and emergency-room visits had tripled in just five years. Cocaine could constrict the blood vessels leading to the heart or trigger arrhythmia, a fatal erratic heartbeat. One example: a free-baser entered Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital with a temperature of 107.5 and a pulse rate of 200. He died a few days later. "His heart was literally falling apart," said a doctor. In Washington DC, cocaine contributed to 88 deaths in 1984, up from just three in 1981. Yet the dangers did not dissuade an estimated 22 million cocaine users residing in the U.S. in 1985 (up from 10 million at the beginning of the decade.) Of all the illicit drugs, cocaine was the most profitable for those who dealt it. In 1981, a kilo of 90 percent-pure cocaine cost $20,000 in Bogota; by the time that kilo reached New York City it was worth $60,000. Once it was cut with adulterants like lactose (for added volume) and amphetamines (for a cheaper high), the powder sold on the streets contained about 12 percent pure cocaine, and the original kilo could bring more than $500,000. The principal port-of-entry for cocaine in the early Eighties was Miami. One consequence of this was a sharp rise in the Dade County homicide rate -- in 1980 up 60 percent over the previous year. Of the 135 drug-related murders that occurred in Dade that year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said that the vast majority were connected to the cocaine trade.
In the "pass along" cocaine market anyone could deal, cutting his supply and selling some to friends or coworkers. Any number of young professional people augmented their regular income with $10,000 to $20,000 in cocaine sales. One businesswoman, who with her husband sold coke to support a $250,000-a-year habit, told a Boston Globe reporter: "Cocaine has an evil law to it. It turns you on real fast. And when it turns ugly on you, there's no stopping. You hate it, you hate doing it, but you can't resist it, no matter how hard you try." A survey of drug abuse on Wall Street found that dealers were selling cocaine and other illicit drugs in 12 of 15 buildings in the financial district. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare reported in 1982 that the economic cost of drug abuse by from three to seven million of America's 100 million workers was $100 billion in lost productivity. Some women became "cocaine whores," choosing sex partners based solely on their ability to provide the drug. And "cocaine kids" began showing up in large numbers in the early '80s; by 1987 they accounted for more than half of all drug-addicted babies in major metropolitan areas. (Studies showed that mothers who used cocaine were at a much higher risk for premature births and miscarriages.) A 1984 survey of 5,000 students from 73 public, private and parochial schools conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that 60 percent of the kids had used drugs at least once, while 26 percent of all seniors had used cocaine. And drug use was prevalent in the armed forces, as well. Autopsies performed on 14 of the men killed in a May 1981 crash of a Marine EA-6B aircraft on the USS Nimitz showed that nearly half had taken drugs shortly before their deaths.
The cocaine epidemic seemed unstoppable. Experts suggested harsher punishments for drug dealers, pointing to cases like that of a college football star who was sentenced to six years probation and spent only 90 days in jail after facing 22 felony counts for selling cocaine. In 1985, New York City's police made 60,000 drug arrests, but only 3,000 defendants served more than a year in jail. Others complained that not enough money was being spent on interdiction. The U.S. Customs Service had only 14 intercept aircraft to stop an estimated 18,000 drug flights into the country each year. In 1982 President Reagan created a cabinet-level task force headed by Vice-president George Bush that combined agents from the DEA, the FBI, the IRS, Customs, as well as the Army and Navy to fight drug trafficking in South Florida. The task force was so successful that by 1985 the Colombians had turned to Mexican smugglers to move their cocaine across the 2000-mile U.S.-Mexican border. (Reagan later created other regional task forces.) The federal government cooperated with Bolivia in 1985's Operation Blast Furnace, dispatching troops and helicopters to assist in assaults on cocaine labs; the operation resulted in the destruction of 21 refineries and two dozen other facilities. In 1986 Congress passed and the president signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which allocated $1.7 billion to buy radar, patrol and intercept planes for Customs and new cutters for the Coast Guard. The bill also called for mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses. Possession of at least kilo of heroin or five kilos of cocaine was now punishable by at least ten years in prison. Encouraged by Nancy Reagan, kids participated in "Just Say No" clubs, of which there were 12,000 by 1987. "Where drugs are concerned," said the First Lady, "there is no moral middle ground. Indifference is not an option."
By 1988, Colombian drug-trafficking operations were exporting an estimated 100 to 200 tons of cocaine into the U.S. The demand for cocaine and marijuana was an economic boom for much of Latin America. About 90 percent of all the coca leaf in the world was found in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia, and hundreds of thousands of people made their living from coca farming. The Bolivian government estimated that the cocaine trade brought $600 million a year into the nation's economy, more than all legitimate exports combined. All told, cocaine and marijuana exports generated between #1 billion and $2 billion in foreign currency for Latin America. This lucrative trade contributed significantly to widespread corruption and violence. It also led to the growth in power and influence of criminal organizations that, in some areas, wielded more power than the legitimate governments.
In 1981-82, an alliance between Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder, Jose Gacha and the Ochoa family resulted in the formation of the Medellin cartel, which ran most of the 50 cocaine labs in Colombia. In 1982 Escobar cut a deal with Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, which allowed the cartel to ship cocaine through Panama for $100,000 a load. That same year, Escobar was elected to the Colombian congress; he bought votes by building low-income housing in the Medellin slums. The 1982 seizure of nearly 4,000 pounds of cocaine (worth $100 million wholesale) in a Miami International Airport hangar was the first indication American law enforcement had that Colombia's chief drug traffickers were working together. This consolidation was confirmed in March 1984 when the DEA and Colombian police discovered Tranquilandia -- a complex deep in the jungle that included 14 labs containing 13.8 metric tons of cocaine. Later that year, a Miami federal grand jury indicted Escobar, Lehder, Gacha and Jorge Ochoa based on evidence obtained by DEA informant Barry Seal, who had infiltrated the cartel. (In 1986 Seal was assassinated by cartel gunmen in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.) Escobar was also indicted in connection with the assassination of Colombia's Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonillo. (In July 1985 the Bogota superior court judge who handed down that indictment was also murdered.)
Though the cartel threatened to murder five Americans for every member of the organization who was extradited according to the terms of a U.S.-Colombian treaty ratified in 1981, extraditions of drug traffickers began in 1985. The cartel responded with an attack on the Colombian Palace of Justice that claimed the lives of 95 people, including 11 Supreme Court justices. Carlos Lehder was finally captured by Colombian police in 1987, was extradited to the U.S. and convicted of drug smuggling in May 1988; he was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 135 years. Later that year however, a cowed Colombian Supreme Court annulled the extradition treaty. When Jorge Ochoa was arrested, a gang of cartel thugs calling themselves The Extraditables threatened to execute Colombian politicians unless he was released. Ochoa was freed. When pro-extradition presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan was assassinated at a campaign rally in the summer of 1989, the government reestablished the policy of extradition and The Extraditables declared all-out war, a campaign of murder and bombing that lasted a year and a half. Jose Gacha was killed by police in a raid on his ranch, and the Ochoa brothers surrendered in 1990. Pablo Escobar was hunted down and killed by Colombian police two years later. In one of his first acts as president, George Bush named William Bennett to head the new Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1989, and in December of that same year the U.S. invaded Panama to capture Manuel Noriega, who was convicted on eight counts of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering -- and sentenced to 40 years in federal prison. A battle in the drug wars had been won. But the conflict was far from over. In a matter of months a new cartel, the Cali, had replaced the dismantled Medellin organization.
The Camarena Case
In February 1985, DEA agent Enrique Camarena was kidnapped and murdered in Mexico. An investigation into his disappearance revealed widespread drug-related corruption in Mexico's law enforcement. In 1988 the U.S. pressured Mexico to arrest Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the drug lord thought to be responsible for Camarena's murder, and in April of the following year a team of federal agents arrested Gallardo in a Guadalajara suburb. Gallardo was imprisoned on charges relating to the DEA agent's kidnapping and death. His nephews, the Arellano-Felix brothers, inherited much of his drug empire, and quickly proved themselves to be as ruthless as Gallardo. Ramon Arellano-Felix was indicted by a federal grand jury in San Diego on charges of drug smuggling and made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List in 1997. Three years later the State Department offered a $2 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the brothers on charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy, and aiding and abetting violent crimes.
The Economist, 28 November 1981, 15 January 1983, 1 December 1984, 23 February 1985,17 August 1985, 15 March 1986, 7 June 1986, 9 August 1986, 20 September 1986, 6 December 1986
Time, 6 July 1981, 23 November 1981, 12 April 1982, 29 November 1982, 17 January 1983, 14 March 1983, 11 April 1983, 2 April 1984, 28 May 1984, 25 February 1985, 20 May 1985, 16 September 1985, 21 October 1985, 20 January 1986, 17 March 1986, 2 June 1986, 18 August 1986, 22 September 1986, 14 December 1986, 7 March 1988, 21 March 1988, 18 April 1988, 30 May 1988, 15 August 1988, 24 October 1988, 28 August 1989, 11 September 1989
"Can Cocaine Conquer America?"
Reader's Digest (January 1987)
"The Truth About Cocaine"
Gina Maranto, Discover (March 1985)
"We Can Conquer Cocaine"
Trevor Armbrister, Reader's Digest (February 1987)
The Business of Drugs
Mary H. Cooper (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1990)
The Cocaine Kids: The Inside Story of a Teenage Drug Ring
Terry Williams (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1989)
Cracked Coverage: Television News, The Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy, Jimmie L. Reeves & Richard Campbell
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994)
Desperados: Latin Drug Lords, U.S. Lawmen, and the War America Can't Win
Elaine Shannon (New York: Viking, 1988)