In Colombia, former rebels have been taking advantage of a 2016 peace treaty by ramping up production of cocaine in their jungle strongholds — and top U.S. drug-fighting authorities say that surge will be felt more than 4,000 miles away in Chicago.
Money from cocaine helped to fund a decades-long war that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, waged against the government. In late 2016, FARC and then-Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos signed a deal under which the rebels agreed to disarm. But that didn’t stop them from growing coca, which cocaine is refined from.
Now, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is anticipating an increase in cocaine shipped to Chicago and other major cities in the United States, which already are grappling with widespread addiction to heroin and synthetic opioids.
Matthew Donahue, regional director for the DEA in North America and Central America, and Brian McKnight, head of the DEA in Chicago, tell the Chicago Sun-Times the rise in cocaine production in Colombia is likely to result in more cocaine coming to the Chicago area and bigger seizures of the drug.
“We’re seeing it going up to maybe a threefold amount of cocaine being produced and shipped out,” Donahue says.
McKnight says: “I think you’ll see an uptick in cocaine seizures by DEA and state and local law enforcement over the next few years.”
Cocaine seizures already are on the rise. For the 12 months that ended in September 2017, the DEA seized 1,168 kilograms of cocaine in the Chicago area, and 1,223 kilos were confiscated the previous year. That’s far more than in most of the other years since 2010, according to the DEA.
Cocaine-related deaths have also risen in Cook County, but it’s unclear whether that’s related to greater availability of the drug or to dealers lacing coke with a powerful synthetic opioid.
Such deaths rose from 241 in 2015 to 408 in 2016 and 522 in 2017, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. There have been 309 such deaths this year.
That tracks with a U.S. Centers for Disease Control report that says cocaine-related overdose deaths increased by 52 percent nationwide from 2015 to 2016.
The CDC notes that fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid sometimes mixed into cocaine — “is likely driving the increases in deaths involving cocaine, as there is a lack of awareness of the potency or even knowledge of fentanyl contamination.”
Cocaine use nationally has been ticking upward in recent years, according to a federal study.
Still, a Chicago Police spokesman said the department hasn’t seen a noticeable increase of the availability of cocaine on the street.
Donahue says cocaine production began rising in Colombia in 2013 after the country stopped fumigating coca crops with U.S. help.
“Since they stopped the spray, the numbers started going up,” he says.
Production escalated in 2017 after rebels in Colombia no longer had to worry about fighting government troops.
“They started planting more coca,” according to Donahue, who says that after a coca plant matures, which takes two to three years, it can produce double the amount of cocaine.
Donahue says Colombian soldiers are leery of eradicating coca on foot because growers rig explosives at the bottom of the plants.
“When you pull them out, they explode,” he says. “A lot of soldiers get killed and get maimed that way — so they don’t like to do manual eradication.”
Most of the cocaine coming to the United States is shipped from Colombia to Mexico along the Pacific Coast, according to Donahue, who says about 85 percent of the drug entering the United States crosses the Mexican border.
When cocaine, heroin and other drugs arrive in Chicago, street gangs distribute them. A key for investigators attacking the drug cartels is to work up the ladder from the streets of Chicago to Mexico and Colombia, Donahue says. The DEA office in Chicago is conducting “high-scale international investigations” against Mexican and Colombian suppliers, McKnight says.
Seemingly small bits of information can make a huge difference, Donahue says. For example, cops here might find a scrap of paper with a phone number in the pocket of a drug smuggler, and the number can lead the DEA to cartel leaders, he says.
In addition to seizing drugs and building cases against the cartels, the DEA officials say their agency focuses on seizing the money they rake in. The DEA in Chicago has taken more than $22 million in drug money so far this year, according to the agency.
Typically, cartels package drug proceeds in bundles of cash that they ship out of the United States to Mexico in trucks, trains and planes.
But authorities know that and try to track and seize the money. So cartels also have been using “trade-based” money-laundering. For instance, a businessman working for a money launderer might pick up drug money in Chicago and buy goods — anything from blue jeans to TV sets — that are then shipped to Mexico. The cartel gets its cut of the money when the goods are sold on the other side of the border.
Chinese money launderers with connections to factories in China have been particularly active in those schemes, McKnight says.
“We have a good idea on how the Chinese are involved — not only working in concert with the Mexican traffickers but also with high-level Colombian violators that are moving cocaine in through Central America into Mexico,” he says. “Chicago is a hub, no doubt about it. We have ongoing operations where we definitely know how the money is moved.”
Ultimately, the answer to combating the flow of cocaine and other drugs such as heroin into Chicago and the rest of the United States could be political.
At a May 2017 meeting with Santos, who won the Nobel prize for his peace accord with FARC, President Donald Trump said he was alarmed by the increase in cocaine production. “We must confront this dangerous threat to our societies together,” Trump said.
Donahue says the new presidents elected in Colombia and Mexico could ramp up the pressure on cocaine growers and traffickers. He says he thinks Colombia President Ivan Duque will resume fumigation of coca plants and be “really aggressive” with the former FARC members growing it.
And Mexico’s President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador “ran on a platform of anti-corruption, and he wants to rid the country of the violence of the cartels,” Donahue says.
“So let’s see what kind of policies we come up with and that they come up with,” he says, “and how we’re going to be able to use that to our advantage to really go after the organizations as a whole.”