Turning Off the Tap
The week in late November when I arrived in La Guajira, trouble was brewing. The government had initiated a crackdown on contraband: The previous weekend, Maicao traders attacked the warehouse of Colombian customs (DIAN) in the town, looting it of all the goods that the DIAN had confiscated in the previous weeks, including cartons of cigarettes. The director of DIAN, Ricardo Ramirez Acuna, would later explain that an "arrangement" had been struck in which the companies agreed to assist the customs service in insuring that their cigarettes traveled through legal channels.
While Colombian officials see this as good news, they also say that it is a strong indication of how deeply the companies have been involved in the smuggling enterprise. When they decided to turn off the tap, off it went.
As a result, however, the Way'uu, long accustomed to being the transport mules of the contraband business, now feel betrayed by Philip Morris. For the first time, they were willing to speak publicly about the longtime relationship they had with Philip Morris during more than a decade of boom times, fueled partly by the cigarette company's nicotine contraband.
"We feel betrayed by Philip Morris because the Way'uu were the ones to bring the Marlboro cigarettes from the Caribbean islands into Colombia," asserts Alvaro Iguaran, a Way'uu lawyer and legal adviser. "Philip Morris sent their cigarettes through Maicao.... The Way'uu's were the ones who distributed the cigarettes and showed them to the rest of the country. Once the market was established, now they leave us and go elsewhere."
With the crackdown on smuggling, unemployment among the Way'uu in La Guajira has jumped 20 percent. "Philip Morris should build us a hospital and some schools," argues Iguaran, who doesn't want to wait for the lawsuit to be resolved. "They should do this on their own, and not just because of this legal case!"
Iguaran's plea is echoed in the comments of Ingrid Betancourt, a former congresswoman and senator running as an independent for president on an anticorruption platform. "Philip Morris pushed enormous quantities of cigarettes through Maicao into all of Latin America," she told me last November in Bogotá. (Betancourt was kidnapped by the FARC guerrillas in February and remains in custody.) "If the Way'uu don't do contraband, they starve.... Philip Morris has poured millions of dollars into a new NGO they created to promote the culture, dances, folklore of Colombia. Fine. But what about the Way'uu?"
Reflecting on BAT and Philip Morris's deal with the Colombian authorities, Alex Solagnier comments: "They know they got caught.... Now they want to cooperate to combat something they initiated and organized. They invented it. And the question is not what they're going to do now, but what did they do to create this problem?"