William E. Ledwith
Chief of International Operations
Drug Enforcement Administration
United States Department of Justice
House Government Reform Committee, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice,
Drug Policy, and Human Resources
February 15, 2000
Chairman Mica and members of the Subcommittee. It is a pleasure for
me to appear here today to testify on the narcotics crisis in Colombia.
We in DEA believe that the international trafficking organizations based
in Colombia who smuggle their illegal drugs into our country pose a formidable
challenge to the national security of the United States. DEA is proud to
play a key role in the U.S. Government's long-range strategy to assist
Colombia in the counterdrug effort.
DEA is well aware that Colombia not only faces a drug trafficking crisis,
but also is torn by an economic crisis and a generations-long civil conflict.
There are, to be sure, regional and hemispheric concerns for stability
rising from the current situation in Colombia. There is a wide range of
witnesses here today who can, taken together, give you a broad picture.
I am here to comment on the law enforcement aspects of dealing with international
drug trafficking organizations operating in Colombia.
We have the highest confidence in the observations and conclusions we
will share with you today. When DEA operates in foreign posts, we work
within the legal systems of our host nations, of course in accord with
U.S. law, and in cooperation with our host nation police agency counterparts.
During our investigations, in partnership with our host nation counterparts,
we gather and collect a wide range of information, including drug intelligence,
on the trafficking organizations, which we target.
1. DEA TARGETS INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZED CRIME
DEA's mission, in Colombia as in other foreign postings, is to target
the most powerful international drug syndicates that operate around the
world, supplying drugs to American communities, and employing thousands
of individuals to transport and distribute drugs. The most significant
international drug syndicates operating today are far more powerful and
violent than any organized criminal groups that we have experienced in
American law enforcement. Today's major international organized crime drug
syndicates are simply this new century's versions of traditional organized
crime mobsters U.S. law enforcement officials have fought since the beginning
of the Twentieth Century. Unlike traditional organized crime, however,
these new criminals operate on a global scale.
Members of international groups headquartered in Colombia and Mexico
today have at their disposal the most sophisticated communications technology
as well as faxes, internet, and other communications equipment. Additionally,
they have in their arsenal: aircraft, radar-equipped aircraft, weapons,
and an army of workers who oversee the drug business from its raw beginnings
in South American jungles to the urban areas and core city locations within
the United States. All of this modern technology and these vast resources
enable the leaders of international criminal groups to build organizations
which -- together with their surrogates operating within the United States
-- reach into the heartland of America. The leaders in Colombia and Mexico,
by creating organizations that carry out the work of transporting drugs
into the United States and franchising others to distribute drugs, themselves
try to remain beyond the reach of American justice. The traffickers also
have the financial resources necessary to corrupt law enforcement, military,
and political officials in order to create a relatively safe haven for
themselves in the countries in which they make their headquarters.
As complex as these communications arrangements of organized crime groups
are, U.S. law enforcement agencies have been able to exploit their communications
by using court-approved telephone interceptions. With the top leadership
of these organizations in hiding beyond the immediate reach of U.S. law
enforcement, we have directed our resources at their organizational structure,
and their transportation and distribution elements in the United States.
We have been able to identify, indict, and in many cases arrest, international
drug traffickers because the very feature of their operations which makes
them most formidable -- the ability to exercise effective command and control
over a far-flung criminal enterprise -- is the feature that law enforcement
can use against them, turning their strength into a weakness. However,
it must be noted that the spread of encryption technology threatens to
remove this essential investigative tool from our arsenal, and poses, in
our view, a threat to the national security of the United States because
it will hamper law enforcement efforts to protect our citizens from drug
trafficking organizations operating abroad.
The international drug syndicates headquartered in Colombia, and operating
through Mexico and the Caribbean, control both the sources and the flow
of drugs into the United States. The vast majority of the cocaine entering
the United States continues to come from the source countries of Colombia,
Bolivia, and Peru. Virtually all of the heroin produced in Colombia is
destined for the U.S. market. In fact, Colombia has over the past five
years become the leading source of heroin in the United States. Recent
statistical data indicate that approximately 65% of the heroin seized and
analyzed by Federal authorities in the United States is of Colombian origin.
For the past two decades - up to recent years - crime groups from Colombia
ruled the drug trade with an iron fist, increasing their profit margin
by controlling the entire continuum of the cocaine market. Their control
ranged from the coca leaf and cocaine base production in Peru, Bolivia,
and Colombia, to the cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) production and processing
centers in Colombia, to the wholesale distribution of cocaine on the streets
of the United States.
Colombian traffickers continue to import cocaine base from the jungles
of Bolivia and Peru, but in ever decreasing amounts. Coca leaf production
has increased dramatically within Colombia itself, however, the traffickers
move the cocaine to the large cocaine HCl conversion laboratories in southern
Colombia. The vast majority of the cocaine base and cocaine HCl destined
for the United States is produced in these laboratories. Many of these
activities take place in the southern rain forests and eastern lowlands
of Colombia. Most of the coca cultivation in Colombia occurs in the Departments
of Guaviare, Caqueta, and Putumayo. This cultivation occurs in areas where
there is limited, if any, government control or presence. Cocaine conversion
laboratories range from smaller "family" operations to much larger facilities,
employing dozens of workers. Once the cocaine HCl is manufactured, it is
either shipped via maritime vessels or aircraft to traffickers in Mexico,
or shipped through the Caribbean corridor, including the Bahamas Island
chain, to U.S. entry points in Puerto Rico, Miami, and New York.
Over half of the cocaine entering the United States continues to come
from Colombia through Mexico and across U.S. border points of entry. Most
of this cocaine enters the United States in privately-owned vehicles and
commercial trucks. There is new evidence that indicates a few traffickers
in Mexico have gone directly to sources of cocaine in Bolivia and Peru
in order to circumvent Colombian middlemen.
Drug trafficking in the Caribbean is overwhelmingly influenced by Colombian
organized criminal groups. The Caribbean had long been a favorite smuggling
route used by the Cali and Medellin crime groups to smuggle cocaine to
the United States. During the late l970's and the l980's, drug lords from
Medellin and Cali, Colombia, established a labyrinth of smuggling routes
throughout the central Caribbean, including Haiti, the Dominican Republic
and the Bahamian Island chain to South Florida, using a variety of smuggling
techniques to transfer their cocaine to U. S. markets. Smuggling scenarios
included airdrops of 500-700 kilograms in the Bahamian Island chain and
off the coast of Puerto Rico, mid-ocean boat-to-boat transfers of 500 to
2,000 kilograms, and the commercial shipment of multi-tons of cocaine through
the port of Miami.
2. CURRENT COLOMBIAN DRUG TRAFFICKING GROUPS
Colombian drug trafficking groups are no longer the monolithic organizations
they were over most of the past two decades. After Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela
and his confederates in the Cali Cartel were brought to justice by Colombian
authorities in 1995, new groups from the North Valle del Cauca began vying
for control of the lucrative markets on the United States East Coast, previously
dominated by Rodriguez Orejuela. Experienced traffickers who have been
active for years -- but worked in the shadow of the Cali drug lords --
have more recently proven adept at seizing opportunities to increase their
role in the drug trade. Many of these organizations began to re-activate
traditional trafficking routes in the Caribbean to move their product to
DEA's focus on the Cali organization's command and control functions
in the U.S. enabled us to build formidable cases against the Cali leaders,
which allowed our Colombian counterparts to accomplish the almost unimaginable
-- the arrest and incarceration of the entire infrastructure of the most
powerful crime group in history. Although the incarceration of Cali traffickers
may continue to direct a portion of their operation from prison they are
no longer able to maintain control over this once monolithic giant. Now,
the independent groups of traffickers from the Northern Valle del Cauca
have replaced the highly structured, centrally controlled business operations
of the Cali Cartel. These new groups tend to be smaller and less monolithic,
however, they continue to rely on fear and violence to expand and control
their trafficking empires.
DEA has identified the major organizations based on the northern coast
of Colombia that have deployed command and control cells in the Caribbean
Basin to funnel tons of cocaine to the United States each year. Colombian
managers, who have been dispatched to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,
operate these command and control centers and are responsible for overseeing
drug trafficking in the region. These groups are also directing networks
of transporters that oversee the importation, storage, exportation, and
wholesale distribution of cocaine destined for the continental United States.
In addition to trafficking their own cocaine, organizations operating
out of Colombia supply almost all of the cocaine to the Mexican crime syndicates.
The Mexican organizations purchase cocaine, as well as accepting cocaine
in payment for services, from Colombian groups. This change in the manner
in which business is conducted is also driven by the new trafficking groups
in Colombia, who have chosen to return to the Caribbean to move their cocaine
to the United States.
Mexican organized crime syndicates now control the wholesale distribution
of cocaine in the western half and the Midwest of the United States. Moreover,
the Colombians have franchised to criminals from the Dominican Republic
a portion of the mid-level wholesale cocaine and heroin trade on the East
Coast of the U.S. The Colombian groups remain, however, in control of the
sources of supply. The Dominican trafficking groups, already firmly entrenched
as low-level cocaine and heroin wholesalers in the larger northeastern
cities, were uniquely placed to assume a far more significant role in this
The Dominican traffickers operating in the U.S., and not the Colombians,
are now the ones subject to arrest, while the top level Colombians control
the organization with sophisticated telecommunications. This change in
operations reduces profits somewhat for the syndicate leaders. It succeeds,
however, also in reducing their exposure to U.S. law enforcement. When
arrested, the Dominicans will have little damaging information that can
be used against their Colombian masters. Reducing their exposure, together
with sophisticated communications, puts the Colombian bosses closer to
their goal of operating from a political, legal, and electronic sanctuary.
Colombian drug traffickers' efforts to reduce their exposure is clearly
linked to the 1997 change in Colombian constitutional law which, once again,
exposes the Colombians to extradition to the United States for drug crimes.
Colombia has always been the world's number one producer of finished
cocaine HCl. Colombia now also has the dubious honor of also being the
world's largest producer of cocaine base. These changing dynamics highlight
the fact that Colombian cocaine trafficking organizations continue to dominate
the international cocaine trade. Over the past several years, Colombian
coca cultivation and cocaine production have been increasing.
Net cultivation in 1998 was 101,800 hectares, yielding an estimated
437,500 MT of leaf - equal to 435 MT of cocaine base. New data obtained
from DEA's Operation BREAKTHROUGH has since been used by the CIA Crime
and Narcotics Center (CNC) to recalculate how much cocaine may have been
produced in 1998 from Colombia's domestic coca crop. Much of the difference
is because DEA has recently provided new data based on re-calculation of
alkaloid content, crop yield, and lab efficiency in Colombia.
For the above reasons, the CNC now estimates Colombia's potential cocaine
production in 1998 at 435 metric tons, compared to the previous announced
1998 estimate of 165 metric tons. As recently announced, using the updated
cocaine production formula based on the new Operation Breakthrough results,
the CNC now estimates Colombia's potential 1999 cocaine production from
Colombia's domestic coca crop to be 520 metric tons, based on cultivation
of 122,900 hectares of coca.
In historical perspective, in 1989 Colombia had 42,400 hectares net
cultivation in coca, after eradicating 640 hectares, and produced 33,900
MT of leaf. Although there was no official estimate for that year, a comparable
amount of leaf would yield slightly over 65 MT of HCl. It may appear from
these statistics that Colombian production of HCl has increased from 65
MT to over 435 MT in 10 years. We must bear in mind, however, that the
1989 estimate and the 1998 or 1999 numbers are based on different calculations,
methodology, and levels of confidence . We have, so far, worked the new
formula backward in time only as far as 1995. The 10 year increase might
not, therefore, be quite as dramatic as appears. Net Coca cultivation was
about 50,000 hectares in 1995, and has doubled since then - at the same
time as net cultivation decreased in Bolivia and Peru. Interdiction programs
like Peru's operation AIRBRIDGE, which denied Peruvian airspace to traffickers
flying cocaine base into Colombia, forced traffickers to utilize alternative
routes and methods - such as using better communications security during
their flights, flying from closer to the Peruvian border and through Brazilian
airspace, and using riverine routes. The Colombian traffickers also sought
to become more self-sufficient by increasing cocaine base production within
Colombia itself, to offset the decline in base brought in from Peru.
3. COLOMBIAN CRIME GROUPS IN THE U.S.
Colombian cocaine trafficking groups in the U.S. -- consisting of mid-level
traffickers answering to the bosses in Colombia -- continue to be organized
around compartmented "cells" that operate within a given geographic area.
Some cells specialize in a particular facet of the drug trade, such as
cocaine transport, storage, wholesale distribution, or money laundering.
Each cell, which may be comprised of 10 or more employees, operates with
little or no knowledge about the membership in, or drug operations of,
The head of each cell reports to higher manager who is responsible for
the overall management of several cells. The regional director, in turn,
reports directly to one of the drug lords of a particular organization
or their designee based in Colombia. A rigid top-down command and control
structure is characteristic of these groups. Trusted lieutenants of the
organization in the U.S. have discretion in the day-to-day operations,
but ultimate authority rests with the leadership in Colombia.
Upper echelon and management levels of these cells are normally comprised
of family members or long-time close associates who can be trusted by the
Colombian drug lords -- because their family members remain in Colombia
as hostages to the cell members' good behavior -- to handle their day-to-day
drug operations in the United States. The trusted personal nature of these
organizations makes it that much harder to penetrate the organizations
with confidential sources. That difficulty with penetration makes intercepting
criminal telephone calls all the more vital. They report back to Colombia
via cell phone, fax and other communications methods. Colombian drug traffickers
continually employ a variety of counter-surveillance techniques and tactics,
such as fake drug transactions, using telephones they suspect are monitored,
limited-time use of cloned cell phones (frequently a week or less), limited
use of pagers (from 2 to 4 weeks), and use of calling cards. The top level
managers of these Colombian organizations increasingly use sophisticated
communications, posing a severe challenge to law enforcement's ability
to conduct effective investigations.
4. INSURGENTS' INVOLVEMENT IN THE DRUG TRADE
There continues to be deep concern in DEA, as in the rest of the Administration
and in the Congress, about the connection between the FARC and other groups
in Colombia and the drug trade. The Colombian government is now engaged
in responding to this challenge. DEA will continue to closely monitor the
An alliance of convenience between guerillas and traffickers is nothing
new. Since the 1970s, drug traffickers based in Colombia have made temporary
alliances of convenience with leftist guerillas, or with right wing groups.
In each case, this has been done to secure protection for the drug interests.
At other times, the drug traffickers have financed their own private armies
to provide security services. Some insurgent and paramilitary groups have,
in fact, become little more than bands of well-armed thugs selling their
services to drug traffickers.
The presence of the insurgents in Colombia's eastern lowlands and southern
rainforest--the country's primary coca cultivation and cocaine processing
regions--hinders the Colombian Government's ability to conduct counterdrug
operations. The frequent ground fire sustained by Colombian National Police
eradication aircraft operating in insurgent occupied areas shows the extent
to which some insurgent units will go to protect the economic interests
of their "local constituents" (i.e., coca farmers and drug traffickers).
Likewise, insurgent attacks continue to pose a threat to CNP personnel,
supported by the DEA conducting operations, against clandestine labs.
Some insurgent units raise funds through extortion or by protecting
laboratory operations. In return for cash payments, or possibly in exchange
for weapons, the insurgents protect cocaine laboratories in southern Colombia.
Some FARC and ELN units are independently involved in limited cocaine laboratory
The most recent DEA reporting indicates that some FARC units in southern
Colombia are indeed directly involved in drug trafficking activities, such
as controlling local cocaine base markets. Some insurgent units apparently
have assisted drug trafficking groups in transporting and storing cocaine
and marijuana within Colombia. In particular, some insurgent units protect
clandestine airstrips in southern Colombia. There remains, however, no
information that any FARC or ELN units have established international transportation,
wholesale distribution, or drug money laundering networks in the United
States or Europe. Northern and central Colombia continues to be the primary
base of operations for paramilitary groups. Recent reporting, however,
indicates that paramilitary groups have become more active in southern
Most of these paramilitary groups do not appear to be directly involved
in any significant coca, opium poppy, or marijuana cultivation. Paramilitary
leader Carlos Castano has recently admitted, however, that his group receives
payments -- similar to the taxes levied by the FARC -- from coca growers
in southern Colombia to protect them from guerrillas, according to press
Several paramilitary groups also raise funds through extortion, or by
protecting laboratory operations in northern and central Colombia. The
Carlos Castano organization, and possibly other paramilitary groups, appear
to be directly involved in processing cocaine. At least one of these paramilitary
groups appears to be involved in exporting cocaine from Colombia.
5. LAW ENFORCEMENT ACCOMPLISHMENTS
The Colombian National Police is a major law enforcement organization
with a long and honored tradition of integrity. Under the direct command
of General Rosso Jose Serrano, the CNP has become recognized for its dedication,
patriotism, and commitment to integrity. The CNP has introduced fundamental
changes in the force in order to make it a thoroughly modern and efficient
institution within the context of Colombia and the international community.
General Serrano has been an effective advocate on behalf of the thousands
of loyal and dedicated Colombian National Police officers within the ranks.
He has encouraged their motivation, even in the face of the tragic losses
of over 900 fellow police officers in the last three years alone. The fact
that the CNP, and other members of Colombia's law enforcement community,
were able and willing to pursue operations against the drug underworld
is a testament to their professionalism and dedication.
All of the top Cali drug lords either have been captured by the CNP,
have died, were killed, or have surrendered to Colombian authorities. These
unprecedented drug law enforcement successes were the culmination of years
of investigative efforts by the CNP, with active support from DEA. Unfortunately,
Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela and his associates, who comprised the most powerful
international organized crime group in history initially received shamefully
short sentences for their crimes. In January 1997, Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela
was sentenced to 10 years in prison on drug trafficking charges. As a result
of Colombia's lenient sentencing laws, however, Gilberto may serve only
five years. Miguel, originally sentenced to nine years, was later sentenced
to 21 years on Colombian charges based on evidence supplied by the United
States Government in the Tampa, Florida, evidence-sharing case. Miguel
is expected to serve less than 13 years in prison. The Colombian judicial
system must be strengthened so that the traffickers, once convicted, are
sentenced to terms commensurate with their crimes.
The CNP continues to pursue significant drug investigations in cooperation
with the DEA. The CNP is also aggressively pursuing significant counterdrug
operations against cocaine processing laboratories, transportation networks,
and trafficker command and control elements. We expect these operations
will result in prosecutions in both Colombia and the United States.
On October 13, 1999, the CNP, the Colombian Prosecutor General's Office,
DEA, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and Department of Justice Criminal Division
carried out Operation MILLENIUM, a long-term, complex investigation targeting
the inner workings of several of the largest international drug trafficking
organizations operating in Colombia and Mexico, and smuggling their product
into the United States. This operation resulted in the indictment and arrest
of one of the former leaders of the Medellin drug cartel, Fabio Ochoa-Vasquez
along with 30 other defendants. Operation MILLENNIUM effectively targeted
major cocaine suppliers who had been responsible for shipping vast quantities
of cocaine from Colombia through Mexico into the United States. Operation
MILLENNIUM targeted drug kingpin Alejandro Bernal-Madrigal, who, by his
own admission, had been smuggling 30 tons, or 500 million dosage units,
of cocaine into the United States every month. U.S. law enforcement authorities
seized more than 13,000 kilograms of cocaine during the last two weeks
of August alone.
The U.S. Government has requested extradition of all 31. The criminal
acts for which they were arrested all took place after December 17, 1997,
the effective date of Colombian legislation allowing for renewed extradition
of Colombian nationals. It has long been the case that the greatest fear
of these major traffickers is that they could face extradition to the U.S.,
efficient trials, and conviction to terms commensurate with the enormity
of their crimes.
Once the extraditions of the MILLENIUM targets are completed, the operation
will be the most successful and significant drug enforcement event since
the elimination of the Medellin cartel. Operation MILLENIUM would simply
not have been possible without the dedicated cooperation of the CNP and
the Colombian Prosecutor General's Office.
6. OVERVIEW OF PRIORITIES AND PROGRAMS:
Due to the precarious and ever-changing dynamics of the cocaine trade
in South America, the DEA Bogota Country Office (BCO), in conjunction with
the United States Embassy in Colombia, developed strategies to identify,
investigate and dismantle major drug trafficking organizations. The DEA
South American Regional Plan (SARP) and the United States Mission Performance
Plan (MPP) are the primary strategies developed by the BCO and U.S. Embassy
in Colombia to direct and guide DEA and U.S. counter-drug efforts in Colombia.
In essence, the SARP and the MPP prioritize targeting the significant drug
trafficking organizations operating throughout Colombia. The SARP and MPP
are the foundation of the BCO Work Plan. Essentially, the BCO Work Plan
is based on the premise that the organizations controlling the manufacture
and transportation of cocaine HCl are the most vulnerable elements of the
drug trafficking organizations. As such, the BCO directs available resources
at these factions in an effort to identify and ultimately immobilize them.
Based upon the BCO Work Plan, the BCO will enhance resources in the
area known as the Colombian Source Zone. This is an area southeast of the
Andes mountains characterized by few roads, no rail transportation, very
little commercial air traffic, many clandestine airstrips and an extensive
river system linking this area to Peru, Brazil and Venezuela. The BCO and
United States Country Team believe that by augmenting resources in the
Colombian Source Zone, the amount of cocaine HCl available for transportation
to the United States will be significantly reduced.
As in the past, the BCO will continue to direct assets and resources
at the command and control structures of major drug trafficking organizations
operating throughout Colombia. These organizations operate primarily northwest
of the Andes Mountains and throughout major Colombian cities. These organizations
also control transportation of cocaine HCl from the Colombian Transit Zone
(that area adjacent to both Colombian coasts) to the United States, as
well as other countries, for eventual distribution.
As alluded to earlier, the BCO has noted a significant increase in seizures
of Colombian heroin, both in Colombia and the United States. The BCO will
strengthen its resources dedicated to targeting the organizations controlling
the manufacture and transportation of heroin from Colombia to the United
All BCO programs, in one form or another, will focus on the identification
and immobilization of major drug trafficking organizations operating throughout
Colombia. To further augment these objectives, programs such as the Andean
Initiative, Sensitive Investigations Unit, and Intelligence Collection
will be the primary support for the BCO's enforcement efforts. These programs
will be further enhanced through the Information Analysis/Operations Center
(IA/OC). All programs targeting major drug trafficking organizations will
be in conjunction with the United States Embassy counterdrug strategy and
Furthermore, the Sensitive Investigation Units, Heroin Task Force, Operation
Selva Verde, and other units such as the Commando Especial del Ejercito
will be tasked to initiate significant investigations targeting the command
and control structure of the major drug trafficking organizations. These
units will target organizations operating in the Colombian Source Zone
and other areas of Colombia. The units will be encouraged to work simultaneously
with DEA domestic offices to investigate major drug trafficking organizations.
In addition, the BCO will continue to enhance and promote host nation and
regional counterdrug cooperation throughout the area.
To effectively attain each of the goals set forth in the 2000 SARP,
it is the BCO's conviction that joint investigations between Colombian
and U.S. authorities will garner the most significant and damaging results
against international drug trafficking organizations. As revealed in Operation
MILLENNIUM, such endeavors require extensive coordination among a myriad
of agencies, both in Colombia and the United States, respectively. Given
this, the BCO is continuing to break new ground in this area and believes
several significant investigations will result from this continued cooperation.
7. CONCLUSION: HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
By way of conclusion, we can and should continue to identify and build
cases against the leaders of the new criminal groups from Colombia. These
criminals have already moved to make our task more difficult by withdrawing
from positions of vulnerability and maintaining a much lower profile than
their predecessors. A number of initiatives hold particular promise for
The DEA remains committed to our primary goal of targeting and arresting
the most significant drug traffickers in the world today. In particular,
we will continue to work with our partners in Colombia -- and throughout
the world -- to improve our cooperative efforts against international drug
smuggling. The ultimate test of success will come when we bring to justice
the drug lords who control their vast empires of crime which bring misery
to the nations in which they operate. They must be arrested, tried and
convicted, and sentenced in their own countries to prison terms commensurate
with their crimes, or, as appropriate, extradited to the United States
to face justice in U.S. courts.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before the Subcommittee today.
I will be happy to respond to any questions you may have.