U.S., Colombia Cooperate in Uphill Drive Against Marijuana, Cocaine

Times Staff Writer

The walls of buildings in this port city, a hotbed of the drug traffic in Colombia, are scrawled with the slogan, “Extradition Is Treason.”

But the front pages of Colombian newspapers headlined with approval the recent arrival of John Lincoln Tamboer, an American who was extradited from the United States. He is to stand trial here on a charge of killing a policeman in a drug-smuggling case.

El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper, said in an editorial that the return of Tamboer shows that the extradition treaty that went into effect in 1982--in the face of strident political opposition here--really benefits both countries.

Tamboer’s extradition is an example of the cooperation that has developed between the U.S. and Colombian governments on drug control since April 30, 1984, when a young gunman on a motorcycle killed Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who was cracking down on the so-called “drug mafia.”


President Belisario Betancur, long under pressure from the United States to curb the raging drug traffic, reacted emotionally to the justice minister’s killing. He declared a “war to the finish” against the drug smugglers, most of whom went underground. Later, several top smugglers met in Panama with Carlos Jimenez, Betancur’s chief legal aide, and offered a truce in return for immunity against extradition. Betancur rejected the offer.

The Lara Bonilla assassination is still unsolved. None of the big operators have been arrested, and at least one, Carlos Lehder Garcia, has appeared on national television, attacking the drug agreement with the United States as a sellout of Colombian sovereignty.

Despite the efforts of both governments, Colombian drug traffickers continue to pour drugs into the United States.

The relative ineffectiveness of the drive to curb the flow of cocaine was acknowledged in a February report to Congress from the State Department’s Office of International Narcotics Control.


“The elimination of coca cultivation and cocaine processing in Colombia is the highest drug-control priority,” the report said. It said that to make a significant impact, the United States would have to provide “considerably more resources (and develop a) safe and effective” herbicide against coca plantations.

Still, the Colombian authorities have mounted a serious anti-drug effort with a U.S. grant of $9.5 million for the current fiscal year. The work here is one facet of a billion-dollar national and international drug-control program undertaken by the Reagan Administration.

The spearhead for the coordinated effort has been Colombia’s national police, led by Gen. Victor Delgado Mallarino, a career officer who is widely thought to be above corruption. Betancur made him the first three-star general in the history of the Colombian police in recognition of his efforts.

During the first five months of this year, the national police carried out raids that resulted in the closing of 337 cocaine laboratories and the seizing of 2.7 tons of processed cocaine. The police have also sprayed with herbicide about 12,000 acres of marijuana plants, significantly reducing the spring harvest.


Last year, 262 laboratories were shut down, 20 tons of processed cocaine were seized--12 tons in just one raid--and 7,200 acres were sprayed.

Under the extradition treaty, Colombia has sent six indicted drug traffickers to the United States. Requests are pending for the extradition of 60 more Colombians, among them Lehder and the recognized kingpin of the Colombian-based international cocaine traffic, Pablo Escobar. Both are still at large.

As the slogans on the walls here indicate, the drug traffickers and the huge network of people who benefit from drug sales are still very active. A woman widely renowned as a trafficker was elected to the City Council recently after advertising openly that she would pay 1,500 pesos (about $10) to anyone who would vote for her. She received more than 2,000 votes.

A kilo (2.2 pounds) of processed cocaine is now worth about $27,000 at the wholesale price in Miami, a main point of entry, compared to about $18,000 two years ago, before the Colombian crackdown--perhaps an indication that some of the supply has been curtailed.


But four years ago, the price was $60,000 a kilo, so there is clearly more entering the United States now than in the early 1980s. And the retail price of cocaine has not come down.

Colombia’s marijuana plantations have proved much more vulnerable to the drug-control campaign than have the cocaine producers. The herbicide glysophate is effective against marijuana and is being used by the national police to spray marijuana plantations. The police air wing now has 15 helicopters, five of which are assigned to spraying the main marijuana area--in the Sierra Nevada range.

Farmers in the area are not offered any program of crop substitution. U.S. policy in Colombia is against “offering rewards to farmers engaged in an illegal activity,” one source said.

Although officially more than 7,000 acres of marijuana were destroyed last year by spraying and manual eradication, marijuana is still available in quantity at illegal airstrips and hidden coves. The price here is stable at about $20 a kilo.


This year’s program calls for reducing the marijuana harvest by more than 50% through an expanded spraying effort.

Main U.S. Priority

Stopping cocaine remains the main U.S. priority. The amount of coca grown in Colombia is relatively small. Most of the cocaine paste, from which the refined white powder is extracted, is brought in from Bolivia and Peru, where the coca shrub has been extensively cultivated for centuries.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been trying without success for five years to develop an effective herbicide for the coca shrub. “This is one tough plant,” a drug agent said.


The primary mission of the national police helicopter fleet is to interdict the flights that bring cocaine paste into Colombia. The fleet is to be increased to 20, and tactical units are to be deployed at airfields in the eastern jungle and on the grassy plains along the Peruvian border.

With improved air communications and radar systems, the national police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration teams that work here are confident that they can restrict incoming traffic and locate the hidden laboratories often situated nearby.

In April, the police almost caught Lehder. An airborne unit of the national police anti-drug squad, led by Col. Jaime Ramires, raided a cattle ranch that belongs to Lehder near Puerto Gaitan on the Meta River. A party was under way, and Lehder had flown in friends from all over Colombia to celebrate the first anniversary of the death of Lara Bonilla. When Lehder heard the helicopters, he slipped away into the jungle.

Escobar, who is believed to have accumulated more than $1 billion in drug profits, is widely reported to be operating from a secret headquarters in Medellin, Colombia’s main industrial city, where he commands a private army.


There are indications that Colombian traffickers are moving some of their processing activities to Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, where the U.S. drug control campaign has made little headway.

Because the Colombian government is cooperating, Washington gives it financial support for drug control programs. The Reagan Administration plans to increase the amount significantly if Congress will provide more money in the coming fiscal year.

By contrast, Bolivia is threatened with a cutoff of all U.S. economic aid because the government of President Hernan Siles Zuazo, whose term ends this year, has been ineffective in fighting the drug traffic in his country.

The U.S.-backed program in Peru has also been weak. The new government of President Alan Garcia, who will take office next month, will come under pressure from Washington to take more effective measures, but it is not clear what funds will be available for Peru--which is in deep financial difficulty.


Chemicals From Brazil

Brazil is also involved in the traffic, both as a major source of industrial chemicals needed for processing cocaine--ether, acetone, potassium permanganate and hydrochloric acid--and as a transit point for smugglers moving cocaine on to Western Europe.

Many so-called “mules"--couriers who carry small amounts of illicit drugs hidden on their bodies--have been seized at Brazilian airports en route to European destinations. Also, some plantings of a lowland version of coca, called epadu , have been destroyed near the Colombian border.