Billionaire Drug Trafficker Rules : Powerful Medellin Cartel Safe in Its Colombia Base

Times Staff Writer

Pablo Escobar, billionaire drug trafficker and head of the notorious Medellin Cartel, is a popular hero in a hillside housing project that he donated to 400 poor families here.

"We have much to thank that gentleman for," said Maria de Socorro Tavares, a resident of Barrio Pablo Escobar, as the neighborhood is called. "Everyone should think well of him."

Some do not, of course, including Mayor William Jaramillo of Medellin, who has been an outspoken critic of Escobar's cartel. But Jaramillo recently stopped talking openly about cocaine traffickers, and he sent his wife and children to live in the United States.

"He received some very serious threats against his family," a friend of the mayor said.

Like Jaramillo, many residents of Medellin and other Colombians have learned to bow in the shadow of the rich and ruthless Medellin Cartel. Few openly defy its immense wealth and brute power.

As a result, the cartel has a secure home base from which to dominate the world cocaine traffic, from coca plantations in Peru and Bolivia to U.S. and European retail networks. Anti-drug officials estimate that three-quarters of all cocaine used in the United States passes over the scales of the Medellin Cartel.

Medellin, nearly a mile above sea level but only six degrees north of the Equator, is a sprawling metropolis with springtime weather the year around. In recent decades, the growing city has spread through its broad Andean valley, covering what once were rich ranchlands and crawling up the sides of gentle green mountains.

Thriving Urban Center

With a population of 2 million, it is Colombia's second-largest urban center, a thriving hub of industry, finance and agriculture in the northwestern district of Antioquia. The people of Antioquia, known as paisas , are famous in Colombia for their enterprise and industriousness.

"The paisa is a businessman; he likes money," said Jose Samuel Arango, news editor of the Medellin daily El Colombiano. "But at the same time, he is very generous."

Paisa Pablo Escobar, 38, seems to fit the pattern. In little more than a decade he has built a fledgling cocaine-smuggling business into a multibillion-dollar empire. He has returned some of his wealth to the Antioquia community, paying for park improvements, building a zoo and financing the construction of Barrio Pablo Escobar.

Residents of the neighborhood's two-bedroom, cement-block homes once lived in shacks beside a garbage dump, where many of them scratched out a living as scavengers. In the early 1980s the city decided to move the dump.

'Created Robin Hood Image'

"So Pablo Escobar built them a neighborhood, and gave them the houses, and that created a Robin Hood image for him," editor Arango said.

Escobar was then an alternate member of Congress. He was almost respectable and increasingly rich.

At the same time, other Medellin people prospered in the cocaine bonanza, notably Jorge Luis Ochoa, a pudgy tycoon known as El Gordo (the Fat One), and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, known as El Mexicano because of his love of Mexican music. In the nearby city of Armenia, Carlos Lehder, the son of a German-born immigrant, also became a cocaine power to contend with.

After it became clear that the organizations of those traffickers were working together, someone began calling them the Medellin Cartel. And in other Colombian cities, similar groupings took shape: the Cali Cartel, the Pereira Cartel.

But none is nearly as big and rich as the Medellin Cartel. According to a recent indictment by a grand jury in Miami, the cartel even bought the cooperation of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, neighboring Panama's military leader.

Last year, Escobar, Ochoa, Rodriguez Gacha and Lehder appeared on lists of the world's wealthiest people, published by Fortune and Forbes magazines. According to estimates by Forbes, Escobar has at least $3 billion and Ochoa and his family have at least $2 billion.

Wealth Trickles Down

In Medellin, the wealth trickles down to hundreds and perhaps thousands of cartel employees and associates.

Law-abiding people in Medellin say the cocaine money is easy to spot on young men with extravagant clothes, heavy gold chains, luxury cars, expensive homes, bodyguards and no known means of support.

In the luxurious suburb of El Poblado, where many such people live, armed men stand outside high-walled estates and carefully scrutinize passing cars.

Luxury apartment complexes are mushrooming in the hills of El Poblado. Real estate prices are skyrocketing. An apartment building owned by Escobar was severely damaged recently by a car bomb, apparently sent by some unknown enemy of the cocaine king.

Journalist Fabio Castillo, in a best seller titled "The Cocaine Jockeys," said that an estimated 80% of the land in southwest Antioquia is controlled by the cartel.

Traffickers mix with Medellin society at the bullfights, at restaurants, at family parties, even in church.

"Wherever you go, there they are," one prominent resident said. "It is like a cancer. It is an easy way to make money, and a lot of people fall, like falling into a vice."

A Medellin woman executive said the cartel has brought a disturbing chill to the valley. "There is a feeling of discomfort, of anxiety, of fear," she said.

'The Country Is Impotent'

Ivan Marulanda, a member of the national Senate who lives in Medellin, said that Colombians once tolerated drug trafficking without realizing the magnitude of the problem for their country.

"When they became aware of the magnitude, nothing could be done," he said. "Today the country is impotent."

Policemen say the cocaine traffickers have major responsibility for a sharp rise in Medellin homicides, which increased from 909 in 1983 to 2,451 last year.

Many drug killings result from disputes among traffickers, but the cartel has shown no limits on killing those who get in its way.

Attorney General Slain

On Jan. 25, the cartel abducted Carlos Hoyos, the Colombian attorney general, on a road approaching Medellin's new airport. Hoyos, wounded in the abduction, was killed later and his body was left along another road.

It was not the first assassination by the cartel to shock the nation. Previous victims have included Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara, in April, 1984, and Supreme Court Justice Hernando Baquero, in July, 1986.

The cartel has also killed scores of police officers, judges and other officials.

The one threat that the cartel does seem to fear is extradition. None of its leaders has ever been convicted and sentenced on a drug trafficking charge in Colombia. Before they were assassinated, Hoyos, Lara and Baquero had all been pressing for the extradition of cartel bosses for trial in the United States.

During a period of aggressive extradition efforts from 1985 to early 1987, 16 people were extradited from Colombia to the United States on drug charges. The biggest catch was cartel boss Lehder, 38, who is being tried in Jacksonville, Fla., on charges of smuggling several tons of cocaine.

Extradition Invalidated

In mid-1987 the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that the country's 1979 extradition treaty with the United States was inoperative because of defects in enabling legislation. But the government, apparently under U.S. pressure, arrested cartel boss Ochoa last November and began extradition proceedings under a 1933 inter-American treaty.

The cartel reacted immediately. Gunmen went to the home of Juan Gomez Martinez, the Conservative Party candidate for mayor of Medellin, and tried to break in. Gomez Martinez and a son, shooting at the assailants with pistols and a hunting rifle, held them off.

Later, in a statement signed "The Extraditables," the cartel said its intention had been to hold Gomez Martinez hostage.

"We want the government to know that if citizen Jorge Luis Ochoa is extradited to the United States, we will declare total and absolute war against the entire political leadership of the country," the statement said. "We will execute without any hesitation the main political leaders of the traditional parties."

Ochoa was not extradited. His high-powered lawyers arranged for his release from prison Dec. 30. The judge who ordered the release is under investigation.

U.S. Protested Release

The United States protested Ochoa's release, and in a gesture of good will Colombia issued new arrest orders for Escobar, Ochoa and Ochoa's two brothers.

None has been caught, but the cartel has not rested. On Jan. 18, it abducted Andres Pastrana, Conservative Party candidate for mayor of Bogota and son of a former president. And on Jan. 25, it abducted Atty. Gen. Hoyos.

While the police were searching for Hoyos, they found Pastrana alive on a farm near Medellin, where he had been taken secretly by helicopter. His abductors fled as the police closed in on the farm.

The police also found a cartel arsenal that contained numerous automatic weapons and such sophisticated equipment as night gunsights. Hoyos' body was found later that day.

Some Colombians, including two Roman Catholic bishops, have suggested that it is time for a dialogue between the cartel and the government.

Officials Wary of Extradition

President Virgilio Barco Vargas' government says it does not plan to negotiate with drug traffickers. But since Hoyos' death, the authorities have said that policies on narcotics traffic will be thoroughly reviewed.

"Part of the global review implies reexamining how important extradition is in this fight, if it is a key or if you can do more in other ways," one senior official said.

He predicted that in the future the police will seek to build structures for criminal justice that are more effective, and to avoid violent retaliations by the cartel.

Asked if that means no more extradition, he said, "I believe the political possibility for extradition is very low."

Treat to Stability Seen

Eduardo Pizarro, a professor at the National University's Institute of Political Science, said that violent cartel reactions to extradition could threaten government stability.

"Extradition is national suicide," Pizarro said in an interview. "It is an error, because the Colombian state is too weak in the face of an organization with so much power."

He said he believes that "a kind of truce" has been reached tacitly between the cartel and the government.

Colombian and foreign analysts agree that many government officials and politicians are intimidated by the cartel, and that others have been corrupted.

In December, the lower house of Congress adopted unanimously a resolution rejecting any further extraditions. Without extradition, prosecution of the cocaine traffickers is left to Colombia.

Under his state-of-siege powers, President Barco has decreed a "Statute for the Defense of Democracy" that gives the criminal justice system some new advantages against traffickers, such as the authority to conduct searches and make arrests without warrants.

Barco is also campaigning for a national plebiscite that could open the way for overhauling the country's constitution. Among proposed constitutional reforms are a restructuring of the court system to make it more effective in bringing drug traffickers to justice.

Early last year Barco announced a restructuring of the national judicial police to create an investigative arm with the capacity to track down drug traffickers. The ineffective judicial police unit in the attorney general's office was dissolved, and the Justice Ministry was given responsibility for the reorganized unit.

Unit Not Fully Organized

But the new unit is still not fully organized, according to sources in Bogota.

Corruption is said to be widespread among police officers and judges, especially in Medellin. Judges and government lawyers are generally underpaid and inexperienced, while the Medellin Cartel hires the best criminal lawyers available.

Colombian officials admit that the Medellin Cartel is too big a problem for the government to handle. They say that because cocaine trafficking is an international enterprise, a major multinational effort is needed to fight it.

U.S. aid to Colombia for the drug fight, about $10 million a year, is not nearly enough, the officials say, adding that other countries must become more deeply involved. The justice minister recently requested $30 million in anti-narcotics aid from the United Nations.

U.S. officials agree that more international cooperation is needed, but they insist that it is in Colombia's interest to do much more against the traffickers, including extradition.

"The traffickers have already penetrated the fabric of Colombian life," Charles A. Gillespie Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, said in an interview. "And what frightens me is that this penetration may go unchecked, leading not to the downfall of Colombia and its institutions, but to a serious and lasting corruption."

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