And it is a picture that leads some to think that Colombia deserves its reputation as a corrupt society living high off the misery of foreign--mostly American--drug addicts, a society that deserves whatever punishment befalls it if its drug business is destroyed.
But the reality is that with the region's healthiest and best-managed economy, most of Colombia's wealth is its own. And despite more than $1.2 billion the cocaine traffickers are estimated to be circulating through Colombia's economy as a result of supplying the huge U.S. market, the government has managed to restrict the overall impact of the narcotics business.
This is not to say that the immediate destruction of the cocaine cartels would not have a negative impact--$1.2 billion is a lot of money, and economists say there would be at least a short-term recession.
But with cautious and proper management, the experts say, Colombia would emerge economically intact--probably even better off--because there would be a savings of the cost expended to fight the drug war and a new efficiency and productivity forced on both the government and private sectors to offset the loss of the cocaine money.
Nonetheless, government officials and private Colombian economists emphasize that the management they talk about requires that the United States help ease the pain.
"It is the demand in the United States that keeps the traffickers in business, not what we do," one Colombian economist said. "Americans should have to help offset whatever costs we have to pay."
On the other side, U.S. officials try to minimize even the possibility of a negative impact on Colombia's economy if the cartels are put out of business.
"Shut it down tomorrow," one American expert said, "and you would lose some spending, but the overall effect would be positive, not negative."
But interviews with both Colombian and U.S. officials indicate that neither side is focusing on the question of the loss to the economy of the $1.2 billion from cocaine.
"I suppose that is a legitimate position," a U.S. official here said, "but I haven't heard that from the Colombian government."
In the Planning Ministry, one official said that "I don't think we have come to that point" of talking with the United States about what kind of help and how much Washington should provide. Actually, he said--because no one had seriously thought the drug business could be shut down immediately or completely--no one has seriously thought about how to deal with such a scenario.
Experts say the lack of contingency planning raises questions about how serious either country is in publicly stated expectations that the war against the Colombian drug cartels can be won, at least in the near future.
In any case, what would be at stake if Colombia's drug trafficking were shut down now?
Colombia's gross national product is $35 billion to $40 billion a year, with coffee providing 30% of the total, oil 30% and minor exports (other agricultural products and light industrial products) 30%. The remaining 10% is provided by what an economist at the University of the Andes calls "imagination"--that is, contraband, including drugs.
Altogether, the experts agree, no more than 2% to 3% of the GNP comes from narcotics trafficking, and nearly all of that is in the form of foreign exchange--that is, foreign currency brought into the country from the sale of exports, plus foreign investment and money sent back into the country by Colombians living abroad.
According to the best estimates, Colombia's foreign exchange holdings total about $6 billion, of which $1.2 billion is from drugs.