Cover image for From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation By Michael Kenney

From Pablo to Osama

Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation

Michael Kenney


$55.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02931-3

$33.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02932-0

312 pages
6" × 9"

From Pablo to Osama

Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation

Michael Kenney

“Kenney has written an exciting, informative, and practically useful book. He uses organization theoretic concepts to explore and illuminate rich empirical data and provide insights relevant to important policy issues. This is a rare combination reminiscent of Diane Vaughan’s The Challenger Launch Decision and Lynn Eden’s Whole World on Fire. Specifically, Kenney examines the relationship between organizational structures and organizational learning in the context of organizations that engage in and fight against terrorism and drug smuggling.  The insight he provides about the strengths and weaknesses of these organizations provides the basis for new ways of thinking about policy in these important domains. The book is a real treat to read.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
From Pablo to Osama is a comparative study of Colombian drug-smuggling enterprises, terrorist networks (including al Qaeda), and the law enforcement agencies that seek to dismantle them. Drawing on a wealth of research materials, including interviews with former drug traffickers and other hard-to-reach informants, Michael Kenney explores how drug traffickers, terrorists, and government officials gather, analyze, and apply knowledge and experience. The analysis reveals that the resilience of the Colombian drug trade and Islamist extremism in wars on drugs and terrorism stems partly from the ability of illicit enterprises to change their activities in response to practical experience and technical information, store this knowledge in practices and procedures, and select and retain routines that produce satisfactory results. Traffickers and terrorists “learn,” building skills, improving practices, and becoming increasingly difficult for state authorities to eliminate. The book concludes by exploring theoretical and policy implications, suggesting that success in wars on drugs and terrorism depends less on fighting illicit networks with government intelligence and more on conquering competency traps—traps that compel policy makers to exploit militarized enforcement strategies repeatedly without questioning whether these programs are capable of producing the intended results.
“Kenney has written an exciting, informative, and practically useful book. He uses organization theoretic concepts to explore and illuminate rich empirical data and provide insights relevant to important policy issues. This is a rare combination reminiscent of Diane Vaughan’s The Challenger Launch Decision and Lynn Eden’s Whole World on Fire. Specifically, Kenney examines the relationship between organizational structures and organizational learning in the context of organizations that engage in and fight against terrorism and drug smuggling.  The insight he provides about the strengths and weaknesses of these organizations provides the basis for new ways of thinking about policy in these important domains. The book is a real treat to read.”
“This is an impressive book. It applies organizational theory to understand the dynamic relationships within two little-understood sets of complex, mutually dependent enterprises. The first set pairs narcs and narcos (or Colombian drug trafficking cartels and U.S. and Colombian drug enforcement organization). The second set looks at terrorist organizations, particularly Al Queda and U.S. and international counter-terror organizations. Kenney shows how drug cartels and terrorist organizations continually adapt to the counter-narcotics measures and anti-terrorist forces.  Competitive adaptation means that apparent "success"  by law enforcement agencies or others is generally short-lived. The conceptual framework is very useful—indeed penetrating and necessary—for all current and future scholars and policy makers concerned with these issues.”
“The United States has struggled to win its wars on drugs and terror. Why do our adversaries always seem to be one step ahead? Michael Kenney provides an original and provocative answer to the question of why the ability of drug cartels and terrorist groups to learn, adapt, and move quickly surpasses ours. Our technical and military advantages are not enough in a contest that rewards agility and information superiority. This book is an important contribution to our understanding not just of the adversary but of the limitations of our response.”
“Kenney has written a remarkable and highly readable book that will be of interest to a wide ranging audience . . . it will be useful to sociologists, industrial and organizational scholars, and others who want to better understand the particulars of illicit networks, how they are organized, how they achieve reliability, and how and why they are able to persist. It also will be useful to public management scholars and policy-makers who are interested in better understanding their own practices and how they can be more successful in creating reliable outcomes.”
From Pablo to Osama is a well-researched and well-organized book that is written in clear, expressive language. It will be of interest to practitioners and scholars alike. . . . Kenney has made an important contribution to the literature analyzing the organization and operation of illicit networks and the governmental structures established to protect society from them.”
“Kenney’s study is riveting, important, and an original contribution that is a must-read for those attempting to understand the structure and identity of criminal networks engaged in terrorism and transnational organized crime. It provides novel insight into why law enforcement will keep losing until they are able to learn and openly reflect on their activities in the same way that criminal networks do.”
“Kenney provides rich details and tells great stories, tying them all together with enough theory and policy relevance to keep the reader interested.”
“Kenney’s From Pablo to Osama is among the most powerful books ever published on the topic of drug trafficking. . . . This book is extraordinary. For those perhaps expecting technical network analysis and arid theory, this book is a relief: it is beautifully and clearly written, so that even a layman (or policeman) could easily grasp its fine-tuned integration of theory and evidence. This is real-life social science. It brings balanced perspectives to topics usually clouded by superficial sensationalism.”
“This is the most important theoretical book on terrorism published in the last year. The theory is informed, in an inductive way, by intensive field research with actual drug traffickers, who went beyond (and refuted) conventional wisdom about drug trafficking.”
“In a little-known but important work, From Pablo to Osama, Michael Kenney, an American academic, brilliantly demonstrates this. Kenney, a fluent Spanish speaker, worked on Colombian drug networks for a decade before applying his research to Islamic militants. Kenney’s conclusions are interesting and important.”

Michael Kenney is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Penn State Harrisburg.




Introduction: Clandestine Actors and Competitive Adaptation

1. The Architecture of Drug Trafficking

2. How Narcos Learn

3. How “Narcs” Learn

4. Competitive Adaptation: Trafficking Networks Versus Law Enforcement Agencies

5. How Terrorists Learn

6. Competitive Adaptation Counterterrorist Style

Conclusion: Beyond the Wars on Drugs and Terrorism


Selected Bibliography



The Architecture of Drug Trafficking

To understand how Colombian trafficking enterprises learn, we must first understand how they, and the illegal industry they coordinate, are organized. This requires dispelling a long-standing illusion about the country’s drug trade. For much of the past twenty-five years, the U.S.-led war on drugs has been premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of Colombia’s illicit industry. Beginning in the early 1980s, as numerous trafficking enterprises extended their reach into American drug markets, a misconception developed that the Colombian cocaine trade was run by a handful of massive, vertically integrated “cartels” that restricted production and set international prices. Much of this mythical monopoly power was attributed to smuggling groups based in the cities of Medellín and Cali, where cocaine “kingpins” such as Pablo Escobar, Jorge Ochoa, and Gilberto Rodríguez-Orejuela were credited with directing production in the Andes and dividing up lucrative American and European markets among themselves. The cartel myth achieved remarkable staying power in American popular culture, in part because the vivid imagery it conveyed was plausible—and useful—to politicians eager to pass drug-control legislation, law enforcers hoping for greater drug war resources, investigative journalists searching for profitable news copy, and citizens fearful of the harmful affects of drug abuse and addiction. In press releases, media reports, and Hollywood films, the cocaine “cartels” were often depicted as super-criminal associations bent on destroying American values in their single-minded pursuit of illegal profits. But irrespective of its political and moral expedience, as a description of the Colombian drug trade, the cartel metaphor left much to be desired.

“The cartels never existed until they were created by the media and the U.S. government,” explains “Néstor,” an experienced marijuana and cocaine broker with ties to the so-called Medellín cartel. Sitting in a medium-security federal prison in Florida, he elaborates:

Pablo Escobar was a big smuggler, the Ochoas, all these guys were independent, like everyone else. When the government of Colombia and the Americans came after them, they had to react to the action to the government. But the cartels never happened naturally where guys sat down and said, “Okay, I’m going to control this and this, and you’re controlling that.” This never happened. . . . It was simply lots of small, independent groups: small clans, friends, relatives, family . . . people were trafficking through contacts. They networked to get the job done.

Néstor is not alone in his assessment: other former traffickers I interviewed echoed his observations, juxtaposing the social construction of Colombian “cartels” with the drug industry’s tangible lack of a cartel structure. In recent years the cartel myth has been debunked by several scholars who argue that the Colombian drug trade was never dominated by a single organization or association that controlled enough cocaine to limit production and fix prices in overseas markets. Unfortunately, many researchers continue to use the "cartel" nomenclature,

sacrificing conceptual and empirical clarity for stylistic convention. But even during the heyday of the Medellín and Cali “cartels,” cocaine production and exportation in Colombia was highly competitive, as independent traffickers in more than a dozen cities smuggled substantial amounts of cocaine to American and European drug markets. While some of these enterprises transacted with Pablo Escobar, the Ochoa brothers, and other prominent traffickers, their business relations more closely resembled informal producer-export syndicates than monolithic cartels that controlled prices and monopolized markets. Although different groups occasionally pooled their resources to complete large-scale drug shipments while reducing their exposure to government authorities, they steadfastly maintained their own sources of supply, financing, and clientele. “Driving this resilient structure,” writes Sidney Zabludoff, a former government economist and the author of an important study on the Colombian trade, was “an intricate network of contacts and subcontracts built upon experience and family ties and motivated by the potential for high profits.”

Like other forms of organized criminality, including weapons trafficking, immigrant smuggling, and prostitution, drug trafficking in Colombia occurs in fluid social systems where flexible exchange networks expand and contract according to market opportunities and regulatory constraints. This durable, elastic structure did not emerge overnight but developed over many years, as entrepreneurs built their enterprises through personal contacts, resources, and repeated exchanges while drawing on social traditions, such as contraband smuggling, that extend far back into Colombia’s colonial past.

Colombian Trafficking Networks

Whether they transact in illegal drugs, antiquities, human beings, weapons, or any number of commodities that command robust demand in black markets, organized criminals confront a fundamental dilemma based on their competing needs for concealment and coordination. To protect their operations from unwanted depredations by law enforcers and their illicit competitors, criminals must conduct their activities in secret. The need for concealment encourages criminals to minimize personal contact between conspirators and limit information sharing on a need-to-know basis. Yet, to make decisions, perform tasks, distribute resources, and resolve disputes, criminals must communicate with each other and coordinate their activities. The need for coordination encourages participants to communicate regularly and share sensitive information that exposes the enterprise to risk and uncertainty.

Network forms of organization, when effectively exploited by criminal entrepreneurs, provide a number of advantages over markets and hierarchies in managing this dilemma. In contrast to centralized hierarchies that feature tight coupling between units and formal decision-making hierarchies, such as would be found in drug “cartels” if they existed, criminal entrepreneurs use networks to segment workers into loosely organized, functionally specific compartments, minimizing potentially destabilizing contact between participants. Entrepreneurs also exploit network forms of organization to decentralize their decision-making authority and rely on brokers and intermediaries to buffer themselves from direct complicity in criminal activity. Yet, in contrast to atomistic markets, entrepreneurs exploit embedded social ties and interpersonal networks, often based on participants’ family and friendship connections, to recruit conspirators, generate trust, and discourage malfeasance among participants.

Colombian traffickers have found network forms of organization to be useful in coordinating clandestine activities in hostile law enforcement environments. Traffickers coordinate commercial transactions through transnational commodity networks that produce, transport, and distribute cocaine, heroin, and other illegal drugs. Each trafficking group represents a node within a larger intergroup network that connects with other nodes through common objectives, shared experiences, and communication. Tasks among different groups vary, according to their function in the larger network, which is often spread out in numerous countries. Purchasing groups buy cocaine base or opium gum from farmers or intermediaries in Colombia, Bolivia, or Peru and transport these substances to processing laboratories, often located in Colombia, where they are further refined into cocaine hydrochloride and heroin by specialized processing labs. Exportation specialists then send these finished products to international transshipment points in Mexico, Central America, or the Caribbean, where transportation rings often change the shipping method before moving the product on to consumer markets in the United States and Europe. Distribution groups or cells in overseas markets receive shipments of cocaine and heroin and distribute them to wholesalers, who in turn distribute them to retailers. Brokers provide critical linkages between these nodes by making introductions between participants from different groups, such as exporters and transportation rings or distributors and wholesalers, and arranging transactions between them. Money launderers receive illicit proceeds from wholesale or retail transactions and “clean” them through the international banking system. Within each node of this transnational commodity network, participants perform specific tasks in support of group objectives, which include attaining satisfactory profits and minimizing unnecessary risks.

Embedded within these intergroup networks are interpersonal networks, based on participants’ family, friendship, geographic, and professional ties. Social networks play important roles in Colombian trafficking enterprises. They generate trust and reciprocity among wary criminals who are often reluctant to transact with people they haven’t known for extended periods. They help entrepreneurs recruit new workers based on the personal recommendations of trusted participants. They increase the costs of deviant behavior by allowing entrepreneurs and their enforcers to hold family members and friends accountable for the actions of errant employees. And they facilitate knowledge sharing and learning by communicating information within and between compartmented intergroup networks, an important theme to which I return later in the study.

Wheel and Chain Networks

From an organizational level of analysis, the Colombian trafficking system contains two basic types of networks, although in practice a variety of hybrids obscure crisp distinctions. Wheel networks, also called hub or star networks, contain a core group that manages the overall enterprise and peripheral nodes that perform specific tasks, sometimes for different core groups. In wheel networks, capabilities are not evenly distributed: core groups, as Phil Williams points out, enjoy a preponderance of “power, influence, and status within the network.” Core groups exploit their resources to contract the services of different peripheral nodes that perform the same task, including multiple transportation rings, distribution groups, and money launderers. Core groups are led by veteran traffickers who have the contacts, capital, and knowledge to coordinate large-scale drug shipments.

Core nodes, as befitting their central location in wheel networks, are multitask enterprises. They organize transactions among different nodes; they supply money, equipment, and other resources to complete transactions; they provide security and resolve disputes among participants; they arrange financing for multiton cocaine shipments from private investors; they suborn police, prosecutors, politicians, and military personnel; and they gather intelligence about law enforcement activities and their illicit competitors. In short, core nodes serve as the steering mechanism for wheel networks, facilitating communication and coordinating relations among peripheral groups. If something goes wrong with a transaction, relations of informal accountability ensure that participating nodes will answer to the core, protecting leaders and investors from theft and other uncertainties (see Fig. 1).

The ability to conduct sensitive transactions safely is essential for illegal enterprises, and Colombian trafficking networks place great importance on risk management, even at the expense of reducing the profitability and efficiency of their enterprises. Core groups rely on a variety of practices and arrangements to shield themselves from the vagaries and vicissitudes of counterdrug law enforcement. They coordinate potentially incriminating transactions through brokers in order to buffer leaders from direct complicity in drug violations. They use intimidation and violence to remind participants of the dangers they face should they decide to betray the enterprise and cooperate with law enforcers. They segment their operations into separate groups that are largely, but not entirely, isolated from other network nodes (more on this below). They use multiple suppliers for international transportation, wholesale distribution, and money laundering, building redundancy into their networks and preventing law enforcers from immobilizing the entire operation by dismantling a single node. And they corrupt government officials, paying them to disregard smuggling activities in their jurisdictions, provide information about law enforcement efforts, become directly involved in trafficking or money laundering themselves, or influence public policy on issues of importance to network leaders, such as the extradition of Colombian nationals to the United States.

In spite of these precautions, wheel networks remain vulnerable to head-hunting approaches to drug control, particularly when core-group leaders concentrate decision-making authority in their hands and organizational knowledge in their heads, making themselves virtually irreplaceable. A related vulnerability develops when networks rely on a single node to supply a critical service, such as international transportation or wholesale distribution. The existence of nonredundant nodes creates what University of Chicago sociologist Ronald Burt calls “structural holes” in the network that are not easily filled. Law enforcers can severely disrupt networks that contain structural holes and excessive centralization by dismantling nonredundant nodes and capturing core-group leaders.

Chain networks coordinate transnational drug flows sans the synchronization provided by core groups. Chain networks are decentralized and “self organizing”: they contain independent nodes that perform specific tasks and transact directly with other nodes without mediation and oversight by core groups. While some nodes may contain influential leaders, relations among different groups are characterized by horizontal rather than vertical accountability. Drug shipments proceed through a series of arms-length transactions among independent nodes that often coordinate their activities on an ad hoc basis. Over time and repeat exchange, reciprocity and trust develop between interacting groups, distinguishing social relations in chain networks from pure markets. Like wheel networks, interpersonal relations are often based on underlying kinship and friendship networks that crisscross nodes and networks, facilitating trust and exchange among cagey participants. Like wheels, chains rely on government corruption to assist drug shipments, but they direct the bulk of their bribes to local officials who have jurisdiction in their area of operations, rather than to national-level politicians and administrators. Unlike wheels, chains often lack mechanisms for sharing risks and resolving disputes among different nodes, which increases their vulnerability to government interdiction and theft. The lack of a central coordinating body also means that chain networks may require more time to recover from law enforcement disruptions to individual nodes. Yet chain networks are more resistant to head-hunting approaches to drug control: there are no “high value” core-group leaders for law enforcers to capture, and those participants who are detained are generally easy to replace (see Fig. 2).

Loosely Coupled Networks

The need to conceal their enterprises from law enforcers and illicit competitors while coordinating their activities among numerous interlocked participants has led many narcos to segment their operations into separate working groups, sometimes called cells. Working groups are frequently small in size, with fewer than a dozen members who carry out much of the day-to-day work of the enterprise. Cell managers match participants to roles, often multiple ones, that informally define the division of labor within the group. Typical distribution cells contain numerous roles, including a manager who coordinates the group’s activities, logistics people who purchase motor vehicles and other equipment, deliver money, and punish errant employees, and lower-level workers who transport drugs, manage stash houses, and run errands for their supervisors. “Arturo,” the head of a U.S. distribution cell for a Colombian wheel network, identified five distinct roles in his operation, apart from his own position: transportation, storage, distribution, pickup and delivery, and money laundering. Another trafficking enterprise based in Colombia relied on a network of human couriers to smuggle multikilogram quantities of cocaine and heroin to the United States and Spain. This enterprise contained approximately twenty members who performed a variety of roles, as detailed in Table 1.

To protect the enterprise from penetration by law enforcers and other adversaries, and to limit the damage of infiltration when it does occur, trafficking cells may be compartmented from other nodes in the network. Within wheel networks, cell managers maintain regular communication with core leaders or their intermediaries based in Colombia but limit their interaction with other peripheral nodes. Cells managers often separate workers who perform different functions and give them the minimal information they need to perform their tasks. “Freddy,” a former maritime smuggler in a transportation cell for a large Cali wheel network, observes: “they don’t need to know nothing about nothing, just what they need to produce.” The reason, explains Arturo in a separate interview, is that “if you cross over the jobs, then people will know each other.” By compartmenting workers into separate cells, network managers hope to reduce the potential damage to their operation caused by the betrayal of a delinquent employee.

The degree of compartmentation varies among trafficking networks; some enterprises permit workers from different cells to share experiences, while others segment their participants into fairly isolated groups. Preexisting social networks that cross cell boundaries tend to offset compartmentation, as workers from different cells communicate with each other when they share overlapping family or friendship ties. However, it is not uncommon for low-level workers to be unfamiliar with participants in other peripheral nodes and core-group leaders. Freddy insists that he never met the core-group bosses in his transnational wheel network and that he knew only two people in his transportation cell: the person who coordinated the activities of the group and the colleague who recruited him to join his oficinita (little office). While loosely coupling workers into separate groups helps protect traffickers against infiltration by law enforcers, highly compartmented smuggling networks have difficulty learning from experience, as cells are prevented from communicating with other nodes. I explore the implications of the trade-off between secrecy and information sharing for organizational learning in Chapter 4.

Flat Networks

Smuggling enterprises are organizationally “flat”: relatively few management layers separate network leaders from cell workers. In chain networks, individual nodes often contain only a single level of management: the manager or boss who gives orders—and the workers who carry them out. Some chain networks rely on intermediaries that buffer leaders from workers. When these go-betweens possess discretionary authority to make decisions or manage workers’ activities, they add a second management layer to the group.

Even large cocaine “cartels,” the stuff of journalistic lore, typically contain no more than three or four management levels. From top to bottom, the typical wheel network includes core-group leaders, cell managers, assistant managers, and cell workers. Some wheel networks lack assistant managers, reducing the number of administrative layers to two: network leaders and cell managers. In these operations cell workers report directly to the cell manager, who in turn reports to core-group leaders, often through a trusted intermediary acting as a buffer for the kingpins. Some networks contain an “exportation manager” who supervises different cells, adding a third management layer to the enterprise. Core-group leaders occasionally surround themselves with trusted advisors or investors with considerable smuggling experience, including former traffickers who have officially “retired” from the trade. These figures serve in an advisory capacity, sharing their extensive knowledge and contacts on request, usually in exchange for a cut of the profits or the opportunity to invest in shipments (see Fig. 3).

In many wheel networks, core-group leaders exercise ultimate decision-making authority, but management styles among different leaders vary. Some leaders not only make long-term strategic decisions regarding product development, market diversification, and group security, they involve themselves in the most mundane matters of everyday operations. Miguel Rodríguez-Orejuela, leader of one of the largest Cali wheel networks, reportedly managed every aspect of his vast smuggling operations, including selecting the best hiding spot for cocaine inside boxes of frozen vegetables. Rodríguez-Orejuela also had a habit of sending supervisors to the United States to conduct “integrity checks” of his cell managers and monitor their performance. While micromanagement may guard against sloppy execution and inferior performance, it requires constant communication between the leader and his charges, reducing one vulnerability by creating another. Although Rodríguez-Orejuela achieved tremendous success over the years, his administrative style came back to haunt him when U.S. law enforcers recorded incriminating telephone conversations he had with different subordinates and used transcripts of these phone calls as material evidence in several successful prosecutions.

To protect themselves against such depredations, traffickers often delegate much of their day-to-day authority to trusted confidants and senior-level supervisors such as exportation managers. In these networks the leader may keep abreast of major developments but step in only when problems develop. “I made all the decisions in the U.S.,” recalls Arturo, “from whom to sell to, to how to get to that person, to what house to be rented as a stash house, to how the money was to be brought back to Colombia . . . to what price I agreed to on the receiving end.” According to Arturo, every week or ten days he would travel to Colombia, where he would meet with his mentor, one of four leaders in the network, to discuss problems and set policy for the enterprise. While Arturo was evidently proud of his decision-making authority, the structure of the operation was assuredly designed to protect his mentor and other network leaders back in Colombia.

The Rules of Drug Trafficking

Rules permeate Colombian trafficking enterprises. “Oh yeah, we had a lot of rules,” observes Arturo, providing an obvious example: “We would never say anything on the phone.” “When you go to work for an organization,” explains Freddy, “there are a series of rules. You have to know the rules and apply them. These rules are simple . . . do your work and don’t leave traces. . . . The most important rule is to avoid exposing your network of contacts, so that if someone falls [to law enforcement], it doesn’t compromise everyone.”

In addition to maintaining operational security, trafficking groups use rules to distribute resources, perform tasks, communicate information, and make decisions. Rules and procedures structure relations among participants and reflect network leaders’ values and beliefs about how their operations should be organized. Traffickers employ rules when processing, transporting, and distributing drugs; collecting, laundering, and repatriating drug proceeds; assigning responsibility for failed transactions; recruiting new members; and performing a host of related activities. The rules of drug trafficking emerge over time and through experience. Trafficking enterprises incorporate “lessons” from experience into practices and procedures that guide subsequent behavior, in the process developing larger, more diverse repertoires of action.

Because they operate in hostile environments, trafficking enterprises often refrain from codifying their rules in written documents. Instead, rules are embodied in informal, intersubjective understandings among participants about the “way things are done around here.” “We never said, ‘Be careful,’ or, ‘If you go this far, you going to be dead,’ or something like that,” explains a former drug pilot for Carlos Lehder, a prominent Colombian smuggler during the 1980s with links to the Medellín “cartel.” “You don’t have to say it. It was implicit. We knew that because of who the people were that we were working with, we had to keep a low profile.” These implicit understandings are communicated through conversations, stories, body language, and social gatherings that allow veterans to share norms and experience with less knowledgeable colleagues.

Some trafficking enterprises convene meetings in which network leaders or their associates interview prospective employees and lay out the rules of behavior. Recruits may be asked to provide contact information for their immediate family members as a hedge against cooperating with the police. For similar reasons, some enterprises require potential employees to fill out an application that details previous work experience and supplies personal information to their employer. During a criminal trial of several alleged members of the Cali “cartel” in Miami, Guillermo Pallomari, a former accountant for the Rodríguez-Orejuela network and the U.S. government’s star witness in the case, explained that his former boss regularly held meetings with incoming employees to clarify the conditions of their employment. “What rules did Miguel Rodriguez establish for each of these people who were joining the Cali Cartel?” the prosecuting attorney asked Pallomari.

“That they should be people who were trustworthy, who would keep loyal to the Cali Cartel structure and that should they ever be arrested, they should never cooperate with the authorities,” Pallomari replied.

“If in fact they were ever arrested,” the prosecutor continued, “what rules are you aware of Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela stating to each of these members who were joining the Cali Cartel?”

“To keep silent.”

Pallomari went on to explain that during these meetings participants were warned that providing information to the police would not be tolerated, and that those who did should expect violent reprisals, not only against themselves but against their family members as well. Pallomari himself apparently suffered the consequences of cooperating with the authorities. After he provided incriminating information to Colombian authorities about his former boss, enforcers working for Rodríguez-Orejuela allegedly kidnapped his wife to pressure him to return to the enterprise. Pallomari refused, turning himself in to U.S. DEA agents stationed in Bogotá instead. By his own account, he never saw or heard from his wife again.

Trafficking Routines

Colombian trafficking networks develop numerous practices and procedures to achieve their objectives, many of which are designed to minimize their exposure to law enforcement officials and other adversaries. They recruit family members and childhood friends as co-conspirators. They pool resources from different groups and offer informal insurance to drug shipment investors. They use multiple smuggling routes and shipping methods simultaneously. They design transportation and delivery routines that limit contact between participants. They withhold sensitive information from low-level workers until the last moment, to reduce the risk of robbery and police penetration. They communicate through pay phones, beepers, cell phones, cloned cell phones, phone cards, and e-mail to evade electronic surveillance. And they coerce, intimidate, and, if necessary, harm those who jeopardize enterprise security.

Many trafficking routines are reasonably simple, such as recruiting family members and life-long friends to join a trafficking group. These practices can be executed without much coordination or planning among participants. Other routines are more complicated, involving a series of actions among numerous participants from different groups. In general, the greater the risks of a particular transaction, the more intricate the procedures for carrying it out.

Distribution cells have developed elaborate practices for delivering large amounts of drugs to independent wholesalers. Allowing for local variation, one popular delivery routine during the 1980s included the following steps. Once a large load of cocaine was received, counted, and stored within a stash house run by a distribution ring (a complicated routine in itself), the distribution manager would telephone core-group leaders or their intermediaries in Colombia to confirm receipt of the cocaine and receive a delivery list for the shipment. Delivery lists contained beeper numbers for different wholesalers, the amount of cocaine to be delivered to each, and specific code words and aliases to be used when arranging transfers. The distribution manager would then call each beeper number on the list and punch in the number of a pay phone where he would wait for wholesalers’ return calls. When a wholesaler or his contact called the distributor, they would discuss the details of the exchange using the coded terminology and arrange to meet in a public setting, such as a popular restaurant. If possible, the distribution cell would conduct reconnaissance on this location beforehand to make sure that it contained easy vehicle access and ample pedestrian traffic. After meeting face to face in the parking lot, the distribution manager and the wholesaler would quickly confirm the arrangements of the transaction and retire together to the restaurant. Here the two managers would pass the time while their respective subordinates carried out the transaction. Workers from both groups would exchange motor vehicles—one containing drugs, the other money—drive to separate stash houses, and unload, inspect, and count the contents of the vehicle. Once they confirmed that everything was in order, the subordinates would return to the restaurant and signal their supervisors that the transfer was complete, whereupon the distributor and wholesaler would go their separate ways.

This antiseptic delivery routine was designed to reduce the risks that independent distributors and wholesalers face from law enforcers—and each other. By avoiding any direct handling of the money or merchandise, the routine made it more difficult, but not impossible, for police and prosecutors to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the two men talking over a cup of coffee in the local diner were in fact conducting an illegal transaction. By meeting in public, surrounded by potential eyewitnesses, the routine also made it more difficult—but again, not impossible—for the distribution manager and wholesaler to steal from each other. Of course, if the wholesaler and distribution manager belonged to the same organization, as “cartelized” depictions of the drug trade suggested, such elaborate precautions would have been unnecessary. But in fact distributors and wholesalers, and for that matter exporters, transportation rings, and money launderers, often belong to different groups. The delivery routine was effective because it allowed independent groups to conduct arms-length transactions at minimal risk to both. In addition, the routine was relatively easy to execute and flexible in the details. When planning their delivery, participants could choose from a wide variety of meeting places, code words, and transportation methods. In this manner the routine adapted to fit the circumstances of the moment and the preferences of collaborators.

Joining the Crew: Participation in Trafficking Networks

Whether they operate in processing labs, in distribution cells, or as independent brokers, participants in trafficking networks make decisions, plan strategy, devise tactics, and communicate with co-conspirators. Because of the illegal nature of their occupation, traffickers do not enter into formal contractual relations with their employers that spell out their rights and responsibilities as professional drug smugglers. Instead, membership claims are informal. Traffickers identify themselves as participants in a specific group, claims that other participants and leaders validate by recognizing that they have a legitimate role to play. Membership claims may be supported by kinship, friendship, or geographic ties, or the specialized knowledge and skills a person brings to the operation. Whatever the justification, the member generally identifies him- or herself as part of a larger collective. “I work for a mafioso as a cooker [cocaine processor],” explains “Freckles,” an informant interviewed by a Colombian sociologist who conducted extensive research on the Colombian drug trade. “We are a group of four people, all strong acquaintances, generally family members or old friends.” “We had like thirty-five to forty members,” recalls Homero, the former drug distributor I interviewed who worked in a small transportation and distribution network. “Of course, we all identified ourselves as members. We all had our part. Some supervised the merchandise, others the distribution, others the money.” What Homero recognizes, Freckles clearly implies: individuals identify themselves as belonging to a specific group by virtue of the roles they perform on behalf of the enterprise.

Getting Started

In what might be called the gateway theory of drug trafficking—not to be confused with the gateway theory of drug consumption popular among prohibitionists—many career criminals become involved in the narcotics trade gradually, through participation in parallel pursuits such as contraband smuggling and money laundering. These activities provide the skills, experience, and connections aspiring traffickers need to expand into the more lucrative drug business. Freddy recalls that he smuggled black market sugar and cloth for more than a decade before joining a large trafficking network. His descent (or ascent—depending on one’s point of view) into the cocaine trade occurred through contacts he developed while smuggling contraband and purchasing dollars from established traffickers. “I began to buy dollars,” he explains, “and this was one of the things that most connected me to a series of people involved in the drug business. I bought dollars and they, the traffickers, developed a certain confidence in me.”

Homero’s involvement in drug trafficking also came gradually. In the mid-1980s, drug dealers he knew in Bogotá gave him the opportunity to make money by brokering cocaine deals. After arranging several transactions, Homero became a dealer in his own right, which put him in contact with international traffickers who traveled to Colombia to buy drugs and transport them back to the United States. “I began to meet these people,” he recalls, “and they interested me in the business when I realized how much money there was to be made.” He soon connected with a Colombian-based network that sent cocaine and heroin to the United States through human couriers. After completing a couple of carries himself, he remained in the United States to receive “mules” and provide them with lodging and other support during their stay. Over time and repeated transactions, Homero proved himself a reliable and trustworthy associate, and his superiors increased his responsibilities to include delivering drugs to independent wholesalers. Working as a distributor allowed Homero to expand his contacts, which he used to develop his own clientele.

As these examples suggest, social networks are critical to the Colombian drug trade. Freddy, Homero, and other former participants I interviewed were recruited into smuggling enterprises through personal connections based on family and friendship ties or professional relationships. Freddy’s connection to the Cali wheel network came through a friend of the family, someone who knew of his involvement in contraband smuggling and vouched for his reliability to network leaders. Homero exploited friendship ties among several drug dealers to become a cocaine broker, initiating his long-term participation in the trade. Néstor and Arturo drew on professional contacts in otherwise legitimate export-import businesses to become involved in drug smuggling gradually. In each case social relationships steeped in criminal activity developed over time, as established and prospective traffickers developed mutual trust through multiple interactions and transactions. These social networks are the bedrock of interorganizational trafficking networks. They bring new people into the trade, allowing groups to replace captured participants; they create social identities based on trust and accommodation among established participants; and they facilitate not just the exchange of drugs and money but the knowledge required to trade these commodities.

Turnover and Promotion

Popular mythology suggests that the only way out of the drug trade is through imprisonment or death. While lots of traffickers are eventually apprehended and incarcerated by American and Colombian authorities, and while others are violently eliminated by their competitors, many smugglers exercise more mundane exit options. Some traffickers simply retire from the trade following a period of criminal activity. The reasons for retirement are numerous and vary with the personalities and motivations of the individuals involved. Some traffickers “burn out” from the high levels of stress that accompany this hazardous occupation, where individuals live under constant threat of exposure to the police and illegal competitors. Others recoil from the steady progression in deviant behavior that sustained participation in the trade often brings. Some participants have no qualms about guarding a stash house or collecting and laundering drug proceeds, but balk at the prospect of engaging in physical intimidation or violence. Others eventually tire of the hedonistic lifestyle that inspired their entry into the trade. Drug abuse, family problems, depression, and a heavy conscience prompt some to cease their activities voluntarily. Other traffickers may retire because they have reached their personal enrichment goals or found employment in a more appealing, legally sanctioned line of work. Retirement may be driven by a combination of factors. An unwelcome brush with the law, for example, may compel a participant to reconsider his priorities, making him less tolerant of work-related stresses and more open to gainful employment in “dull” but less dangerous occupations.

The causes of involuntary expulsion from the drug trade are also numerous. Participants may be laid off from trafficking enterprises during difficult times, as when law enforcement crackdowns force some networks to cancel smuggling ventures or downsize their operations. Participants may be fired for engaging in irresponsible behavior that puts the network at risk, such as abusing alcohol or consuming cocaine while working, showing up late for meetings, and repeatedly getting into trouble with friends and family. In some cases errant workers may be subject to more drastic sanctions. If someone is believed to have knowingly cooperated with the police, stolen product or proceeds from the enterprise, or deliberately engaged in reckless behavior that threatens the existence of the network, he may be subject to intimidation, violence, and, in extreme cases, murder.

Finally, every year law enforcers in Colombia and the United States remove thousands of participants through apprehension and arrest. Unfortunately, the impact of these apprehensions on the drug trade is muted by law enforcer’s tendency to arrest low-level violators, such as drug couriers and street dealers, and by Colombia’s relatively ineffective criminal justice system, as manifested in case overloads, low conviction rates, and porous prisons. Moreover, a number of traffickers incarcerated in Colombia have continued their criminal activities from behind bars. After surrendering to Colombian officials in 1990, Pablo Escobar, the notorious “kingpin” of the Medellín “cartel,” ran his criminal operations largely unimpeded during a year of incarceration at the Cathedral, a luxurious correctional facility of his own design. While unable to build their own penitentiaries, other Colombian traffickers, including Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez-Orejuela, Jorge Luís and Fabio Ochoa, and Ivan Urdinola Grajales, were also accused by government officials of continuing their trafficking activities from behind bars. “They clearly feel they are safer and can operate more comfortably from a prison they control than they could as fugitives,” one Colombian police official claimed. “They have a sophisticated communications network they run through a pay phone at the prison and carry on business without interference.”

Traffickers who avoid apprehension readily migrate to other nodes or networks when their former colleagues are jailed. “This happens a lot, depending on your role,” explains Néstor. “Say one guy gets popped—you go work for another group or another guy.” Traffickers who maintain robust social networks connecting them to other enterprises are well positioned to continue their involvement in the trade. In some cases they will even join competitors.

Whatever the cause of turnover, participants must be replaced if the enterprise is to continue. Network leaders enjoy access to an abundant pool of labor, even for the low-level jobs that face the greatest exposure to law enforcers, such as drug couriers. “The mules beg these organizations to keep them in mind,” explains the head of a counterdrug enforcement unit in the detectives’ branch of the Colombian National Police. “We have intercepted many phone lines and you always hear the mules asking, ‘Please, keep me in mind for a trip.’ And the capo or the owner of the route says, ‘No, because you just traveled a month ago and they are going to see a lot of entrances in your passport.’ So the mule says, ‘The thing is, I have problems.’ They beg them. For just one trip there are five or six mules that want to travel.”

To reduce their exposure to law enforcers, network leaders may recruit people “of confidence,” drawing on their own and their participants’ family and friendship networks. Other recruits may be sought for the particular skills they bring to the enterprise, such as bilingual fluency or expertise in information systems, international finance, criminal law, and undercover surveillance. Colombian trafficking enterprises also replace participants by promoting from within. Ironically, the stimulus for promotion often comes from successful law enforcement operations. As police and prosecutors remove traffickers from a particular network through indictment, arrest, or incarceration, they provide opportunities for remaining participants to rise. Workers who have caught their manager’s eye through proficiency and diligence may benefit from these incidents.

“Initially, I was a mule,” explained Homero, “but after I traveled to the U.S. they needed someone they could trust to stay here to deliver mules to others, and that was how I became involved in that aspect of the business.”

“So it functioned as a form of promotion?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” he replied. “Because what happens is that you go and return a couple of times, and you are a competent person, so possibly in the U.S. or whatever country, they lose someone. For whatever reason, he goes to prison, or he doesn’t want to work anymore, so they need someone of confidence to ensure that the drug distribution gets to the consumers. So I began to receive mules that arrived first in Miami, then I went to New York, to obtain mules. Then I was contracting cars, etcetera.”

Promotion is more complicated when enterprise leaders are the ones to be replaced. Who succeeds the “kingpin”? In small, clan-based groups, where decision-making authority is concentrated in a single figure, the leader may be irreplaceable. In these enterprises, removal of the boss may signal the end of the enterprise itself. Yet, given that they transact in negligible quantities of drugs and usually represent redundant nodes in smuggling networks, the termination of small groups does not exert a significant impact on larger trafficking systems. Bigger, compartmented groups, such as core nodes and distribution cells in wheel networks, may survive a limited degree of executive turnover. In these groups incarcerated leaders often turn over the day-to-day management of their operations to trusted subordinates, such as family members or long-time confidants. In some groups the act of turning over operations may be as simple as supplying the new leader with the necessary contacts and vouching for his credibility with suppliers and customers. “Every time they capture a group of narcotics traffickers,” explains a Colombian prosecutor, “naturally, they never catch all of them. There are people that sell the information, people that know the contacts outside the country and here inside.”

The leader himself may sell this knowledge in exchange for a fee or a cut of the profits, or he may rent his route to trusted associates. “The kingpins cede their routes to their men of confidence,” notes another Colombian official. “They tell them, ‘Take the route, I rent it to you, I have nothing to do with this.’ So they hand over the routes and just receive some dividends for renting them. The ones that become stronger are from the lower levels. Now they are the owners of these routes.”

In this manner some trafficking enterprises continue their operations following the removal of their original leaders, demonstrating substantial flexibility and underscoring the challenges facing head-hunting approaches to drug control. Law enforcers may sever “kingpins” from their wheel networks, as they did in disrupting the Medellín and Cali “cartels” during the 1990s, but other leaders appear in their place, eager to draw on surviving nodes to continue their activities.

Understanding the architecture of the Colombian drug trade requires exposing a powerful myth that remains prevalent in the United States. Contrary to what some politicians, law enforcers, journalists, and filmmakers would have us believe, Colombia’s illicit commerce has never been dominated by one or more criminal organizations exerting monopoly control over what in practice has always been a fluid and diffuse industry. Even as the DEA pursued its “kingpin strategy” in the 1990s and Hollywood created sensationalistic portrayals of the “drug lord” lifestyle, hundreds of criminal enterprises flourished in Colombia, producing, processing, brokering, transporting, and distributing cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and other psychoactive substances. While independent groups pooled their resources to coordinate drug shipments and suborn public officials, they did not form monolithic associations that established international drug prices. Instead, many of these groups formed flat, loosely coupled interorganizational networks that coordinated their activities when opportunities arose. Embedded within these intergroup networks were social or interpersonal networks among participants that facilitated commerce by creating social relations based on shared identities, trust, and accommodation. To help manage the necessary tension between concealment and coordination, traffickers developed flexible operating procedures to conduct sensitive transactions and reduce their exposure to law enforcers and other adversaries. These routines doubled as repositories of organizational experience, allowing traffickers to build and refine their criminal expertise over time, often in ways that made it more difficult for law enforcers to apprehend them. While personnel turnover was common in many enterprises, its disruptive impact was ameliorated by internal promotion procedures, contact sharing among established traffickers, and an abundant supply of labor.

Drug trafficking in Colombia, then and now, occurs in fluid social systems where intergroup networks, buttressed by interpersonal ones, expand and contract according to market opportunities and law enforcement pressure. Trafficking networks—be they wheels, chains, or variations on a theme—are fundamentally dynamic. They change over time owing to internal developments and external stresses. Even the largest trafficking groups, the transnational wheel networks with many years of smuggling experience and strong ties to corrupt officials, are often compelled to “react to the action of the government,” in Néstor’s words. How these illicit networks adapt their operations in response to information and experience is a critical feature of Colombian trafficking systems and the subject of the next chapter.