Abandoned boats serve as a lingering reminder of the ‘Bonanza Marimbera’, an era of drug-smuggling that brought violence and organised crime – along with vast wealth – to Colombia’s arid northern coastline.
A short walk northeast of Riohacha’s pristine seafront promenade, from which juts the sturdy wood-planked pier that once captured the revered imagination of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, no less – and one is suddenly very much alone on the fine white sands of Valle de los Cangrejos beach.
Waves lap gently at the prow of a small boat, the flecks of paint peeling above the waterline bleached by salt and sunlight; orange rust stains on its hull gleam in the brightness of the afternoon. Further back from the water’s edge a second, larger boat, sits with its rudder sunk deep into the sand. Anything of value has long since been stripped from both vessels, yet a worn set of levers and a wheel remain in the decaying cabin. A few hundred yards further along the beach another ship sits quietly abandoned.
Beautiful as their solitary stillness is, there is far more to these boats than the eerie silhouettes that dot the sands as the evening draws in: these were once the protagonists in the story of one of the largest drug smuggling operations the world has ever seen. For almost ten years from the mid-1970s, a network of organised criminals descended upon the unspoilt beaches of Magdalena and La Guajira on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, successfully masterminding the mass growth and transit of marijuana – or marimba – to the United States.
A lucrative trade
In 1979, at the height of the Bonanza, these boats, along with many light aircraft, fuelled a vast appetite for the drug that amounted to a purported 20 million daily users in the US. Some estimates state that Colombia was supplying 90% of this demand.
The explosive arrival of the marimberos on the coast sent shockwaves through costeño (coastal) communities and the regional economy. Whereas before the boats had been transporting locally-grown coffee to Aruba and other destinations in the Caribbean, the climate of the Sierra Nevada was found to be ideal for growing another, more lucrative crop.
Two prized varieties of the cannabis plant, ‘La Mona’ and ‘Red Point’, thrived on the cool, high plains of the region and began to replace worn-out coffee plantations. By 1974, 80% of all farmers on the Sierra were growing cannabis, and a new, illicit economy had emerged almost overnight.
The same rural landworkers that had struggled for decades to makes ends meet were suddenly finding money easier to come by than ever before. Some could make 100,000 pesos simply by guarding a crop for a night, and rural workers’ earnings in La Guajira rose sixfold. Unregulated, makeshift airstrips cut through the verdant banana groves of the lowlands to facilitate departure of the small planes transporting this new cash crop.
Those at the top of the trade, the capos, became unimaginably rich and flaunted their wealth all along Colombia’s palm-fringed Caribbean coast. Boutiques and beauty spas sprung up wherever marimberos settled, and capos were able to buy hotels, airlines, and even private islands. By the late 1970s, the bonanza was well and truly underway.
José Manuel Mendoza looks back on life in Riohacha during the marimba era largely as routine, despite the changes that the city underwent. Now in his early eighties, José’s construction enterprise boomed with the demand created by the arrival of this vast wealth. “As long as you didn’t interfere with them or their women, there was no problem for you,” he says.
However, for all the prosperity that the marimba trade brought with it, crime soon followed. “At times, life took place indoors. You would work a normal day but at night shots would ring out on all sides,” José remembers.
The marimberos hardly knew what to do with the money they now had in abundance. A legendary capo known as ‘El Gavilán Mayor’ once strolled into a bank hauling three sacks stuffed with cash: “I’m not sure how much is in there, but if you count it up I’ll be back later for the receipt,” he told the stunned cashier.
On another occasion, a capo who owned Riohacha’s only car dealership hit another driver in his truck. He simply invited the man to continue on to his showroom to choose himself a new vehicle. Their frivolity inevitably had an adverse effect on the price of goods. José recalls that, “their wives would hand over twice as much money for their groceries as was necessary. For a short while, prices were driven sky-high.”
The money quietly accumulating in the north also had consequences on a national level and posed a dilemma for the government. Inflation had risen by 6% as tainted dollars flooded into Colombia and the underground economy flourished. Through what became known as the ventanilla siniestra (‘sinister loophole’), the government of Alfonso López Michelsen was able to nationalise the capital accrued from the marimba trade by exchanging dollars for Colombian pesos at the Bank of the Republic – thus legalising the currency while turning a blind eye to its origin.
In 1980 alone, an estimated US$1.2m entered the national economy via this route. The financial sector was quick to recognise the value of this emerging economy, campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana in Colombia so that the money its sales generated could lawfully be incorporated into the mainstream economy. Their initiative was rejected outright by the government.
What followed was a familiar story. A deal was reached with the United States that saw millions of dollars given to Colombia in order to fight the narcotics trade: war had been declared on the marimberos. Hundreds of agents from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) came and went on a daily basis, and the US air force intercepted many of the shipments destined for Florida.
In the first four months of 1979, one Barranquilla-based command alone destroyed 147 aeroplanes and sunk 60 boats. Low-flying aircraft sprayed chemicals that eradicated the cannabis crops and communities were shattered. By 1985, the Bonanza Marimbera was over, ending as quickly as it had begun.
Today, traces of the marimba era can be found all along Colombia’s northern coastline. There are only four multi-storey buildings that awkwardly interrupt Riohacha’s beautiful seafront façade; and all have alleged connections with prominent marimberos. Further back from the promenade, grand Mediterranean-style villas gleam under the Caribbean sun: their origins are a well-known but rarely acknowledged secret. Boats and planes sit quietly abandoned on beaches and airfields, and lush vegetation has reclaimed the roughly-hacked strips that once fielded returning planes.
Just as the vehicles that facilitated this vast illicit industry now sit in silence, so do costeños (people from Colombia’s Caribbean coast) – nobody asks questions as to how these boats came to rest on Valle de los Cangrejos. Having violently torn lives apart and created an enduring inequality in the region, the Bonanza Marimbera’s legacy lives on too painfully for some to ever entertain the subject. Some say that people are simply waiting for the next ‘bonanza’.
Whatever the reason for the silence, it seems that the relics of a defining era of contraband, violence and easy money on Colombia’s parched Caribbean coast are destined to decay uncomfortably into history.