Growing, Growing, Gone

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Growers like Obluda began hearing rumors of these cheap invaders from the salesmen they encountered in wholesalers' offices. Then, almost before they knew what had happened, the carnation growers had lost their East Coast markets. From there, the Colombians gobbled up market after market on their relentless move west.

"I knew I wouldn't be able to compete," Obluda says. But unlike many of his fellow growers, Obluda didn't blame CSU, his old alma mater, for arming the enemy.

"Maybe it would have taken a few more years," he says, "but I think the Colombians would have found out about it eventually. My thoughts were, 'If they can ship them that far and still compete, maybe it was meant to be.' The problem was that the playing field wasn't level because of the subsidies."

In the early Eighties the carnation and rose growers were able to pool enough money to hire legal counsel in Washington, D.C., to argue against those unfair practices. International trade law prohibits selling products in a foreign market for less than it costs to produce them; however, those affected must prove they are truly being harmed by the imports.

The growers took their case to the International Trade Commission, a government agency that is supposed to protect U.S. businesses from unfair trade practices. But the Colombians had their own high-priced attorneys who argued that because they grew bigger carnations, they were, in effect, producing a different crop altogether. The commission ruled that the U.S. growers had not proved damages.

The bloom was definitely off the rose. While in the Seventies the government had worried about the exportation of Cuban communism to Latin America, by the mid-Eighties it was far more concerned with another south-of-the-border export: Colombian cocaine. The U.S. declared war on drugs.

The strategy on one front went like this: Give the Colombians a legal export crop to grow instead of drugs and no one gets hurt. Except, of course, U.S. flower growers. "But being a collection of family businesses, we didn't have much political clout," says Haley, who even traveled to Miami to discuss the situation with U.S. customs officials.

The government's reasoning had a number of flaws. While the bushes that produce the leaves used to make cocaine are grown in remote, hilly areas far from the prying eyes of police, flowers must be grown in areas large and flat enough to accommodate greenhouses and with access to airports. It wasn't as though a farmer could substitute one crop for another.

Even so, flowers soon became Colombia's number three legal export--right behind coffee and emeralds. "But anyone who thought that it would replace the number-one export--cocaine--was fooling himself," says Haley.

In fact, the Colombian flower industry wound up providing some benefits for the cocaine cartels. Drug traffickers were always looking for ways to launder their drug money by investing it in legitimate businesses--and what better investment than the burgeoning flower industry? Given its money-laundering capabilities, there was even less motivation for the already-subsidized flower industry to turn a profit on the actual sale of blooms--the cartels could afford to absorb the losses in exchange for clean money.

Not all Colombian growers, or even the majority, are owned by cocaine cartels, Haley admits. "But you get a loan from somebody who got the money from someone else without even knowing where the money came from," he points out.

Not only did the floral industry give drug traffickers a way to launder their money, but it also provided a new method for exporting their product to the U.S.--packed in large containers of flowers.

"They arrive on these refrigerated 747s and are immediately placed into huge coolers," Obluda says. With millions of perishable flowers arriving at any one time, customs agents can't inspect them all.

"It's not necessarily the growers who are doing it," Haley says diplomatically. "Maybe somebody sticks it in at the Bogota airport and then gets it after it's cleared customs here."

Haley says U.S. customs agents told him that smuggling has tapered off since U.S. customs began seizing airliners if drugs were found on board. "The airlines got tired of having to ransom their planes," he adds. "So they began X-raying the containers...Flowers and packages of cocaine have very different molecular structures, so it was easy to spot cocaine in a shipment of flowers.

"Now they send the cocaine in with shipments of fresh fish. They have similar molecular structures, so they stick it right into the fish and it's hard to spot with X-rays. The customs guys have to stick their hands in the fish to inspect them, which must be far less pleasant than flowers."

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Steve Jackson