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Charlotte Cartel

by Amanda Pagliarini

June 8,2009

The illegal drug world is an amazing phenomenon. I am mesmerized by movies like Blow and American Gangster, and could sit for hours and listen to my father and his colleagues tell stories from their work at the DEA.

The United States supply of narcotics used to come almost exclusively from Colombia, via Mexico. But DEA presence and seizures in these two countries has made it almost impossible to continue the multi-billion dollar trafficking business directly into the U.S. Many would tell you that the combination of DEA, FBI, and CIA successes and the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993 signaled the end of the Colombian Cartel. But what the DEA knows is that Colombia is still the main United States supplier – they just had to get creative in their systems and operations. As my father likes to say, they don’t call it organized crime for nothing. 

Today, the DEA is able to trace shipments of narcotics into the U.S. back to Colombia on their new, more arduous, less lucrative, but successful route. Drugs now go from Colombia, to Africa, to Europe, and then into the U.S., with each group of smugglers on each continent working in unison. Colombia realized their $60 million per week gig was up, but instead of crumble they recruited other countries under the guise that either they all get a piece of the pie, or they all get nothing. 

Though the DEA is the agency primarily charged with the issue of drug smuggling into the U.S., the FBI, CIA, even local law enforcement all deal with or encounter the issue in each of their respective missions. And as it so often goes when you have too many cooks in the kitchen, they butt heads, duplicate efforts, and are constantly scrutinized for perceptions of working against each other.

A detective in New York City was once quoted saying, “This is why the bad guys run circles around us. They know how to work together, and we don’t.” 

Fascinating stuff right? But what if we applied this same notion to the way our city operates? Last month my company provided a week of free work to area businesses and non-profits that applied. Back at the office after meetings with each group, we looked at our white board of tasks and found ourselves drawing lines indicating who we needed to connect with whom. More than free marketing work, we realized what these organizations really needed was to get in a room with one another. There were so many resources that could be shared and efforts that were being duplicated. 

Our current economy is experiencing what Colombia experienced during the attempted take down of the Cartel. Colombia, not unlike Charlotte, North Carolina, heavily relied on a single source for their economic health. And who would fault them for that? Exports of coffee and bananas would keep them alive, but reliance upon those alone would keep them poor. 

The lesson to be learned from Colombia is that in a time of devastation, they did not redouble their efforts, they didn’t roll over and surrender to defeat. They didn’t wait for the Columbian government to figure out a new means of economic development. They didn’t change their product, or their business model, or go after new customers. They simply expanded their resources by inviting others to the table. They teamed up with others who had means and connections they didn’t have themselves, and brought the same to them in return. 

Adding three middle men to their business, of course, brought challenges. Organization would have to be at an all time level of meticulous. More players would mean less money and power to go around. More stops presented a higher probability for confusion, theft, possibly even seizures. But they all conceded to the reality that they could either prosper together, or stay poor and struggle alone. 

So perhaps it’s time for Charlotte businesses and non-profits to take a Colombian approach to survival. Rather than hold on tight to our own life vests waiting to float to shore, we might get there faster if we bind our vests together, create a boat, and paddle in unison.

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