A gunman killed the leading candidate in next year’s presidential election Friday, prompting an angry President Virgilio Barco Vargas to revive an extradition treaty with the United States to combat a string of cocaine traffic-linked killings of public officials.
The assassination came only hours after drug traffickers killed a provincial police chief in the city of Medellin.
The gunman opened fire on Sen. Luis Carlos Galan as the Liberal Party candidate was about to give a speech before 10,000 people in Soacha, 20 miles south of Bogota. At least 10 others were wounded.
After the attack, Barco used his powers under the nation’s state of siege to resurrect a treaty with the United States that would allow extradition of suspected drug traffickers.
Galan, 46, died of several gunshot wounds to the chest, said Bogota Mayor Andres Pastrana. Galan had escaped an assassination attempt Aug. 5 in Medellin by drug traffickers, who police said had offered $500,000 to kill him.
Galan, who had been one of six Liberal Party candidates seeking the ruling party’s nomination for the May, 1990, presidency, was widely considered the front-runner to replace Barco.
Photographer Jesus Calderon said two shots hit Galan in the stomach as he was about to give his speech at the rally.
“When the individual began firing, (Galan) fell to the ground,” said Calderon, adding that Galan was shot twice in the stomach but maintained consciousness “and asked only that he be taken quickly to the hospital.”
Galan died hours later.
Among the others wounded were one of Galan’s bodyguards, two local political leaders and supporters near the podium. The crowd panicked.
“The people were running, screaming and crying,” Calderon said.
The gunman escaped, and police immediately mounted a search. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Barco, in an evening address broadcast nationwide on television and radio, said he would renew the extradition treaty with the United States, which was suspended by the Supreme Court on a technicality.
He said his government would take emergency measures to stop the Medellin cartel, which is responsible for 80% of the cocaine that reaches the United States. They include hiring special judges to investigate drug traffickers and detaining suspects for a week without a hearing.
The attack on Galan came hours after drug traffickers shot to death a provincial police chief who had led a campaign against them in Medellin, the infamous cocaine capital, 150 miles north of Bogota.
The Medellin cartel claimed responsibility for the slaying of Col. Waldemar Franklin Quintero, police chief of Antioquia Province, where Medellin is located, in calls to local radio stations.
The caller, a man, said he was from “The Extraditables” and that the group had killed Franklin Quintero in response to the government’s crackdown on drug traffickers and its refusal to talk to them.
“We, the Extraditables, claim responsibility for the murder of Col. Franklin Quintero in response to the repression committed and the government’s refusal to have a dialogue with us,” the caller told at least three radio stations.
Franklin Quintero, 46, left his home Friday in his chauffeur-driven car. It had traveled only about 450 feet when it was cut off by another car and five gunmen emerged, officials said.
Witnesses said Franklin Quintero’s car was destroyed by gunfire. The interior was covered with blood.
“They fired without mercy for several minutes at the colonel, who was hit more than a hundred times,” one unidentified witness told Radio Caracol. The witness also said the chauffeur was injured in the attack.
Franklin Quintero had directed the local campaign against cocaine trafficking and led several major raids that resulted in the seizure of tons of the drug and the arrest of several dealers.
However, narcotics experts say the greatest fear of the drug kingpins is extradition to the United States.
Seventeen suspected traffickers were sent to stand trial in the United States between January, 1985, and February, 1987, under the extradition treaty.
In 1987, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that the country’s extradition treaty with the United States was inoperative because of defects in enabling legislation. But the government, apparently under pressure from the United States, arrested Medellin cartel boss Jorge Luis Ochoa and began extradition proceedings under a 1933 inter-American treaty.
The cartel reacted immediately by attacking the home of a Medellin mayoral candidate. In a statement signed “The Extraditables,” the cartel said its intention had been to hold the candidate hostage in return for Ochoa. Ochoa was not extradited and eventually was released. And in January of last year, the cartel assassinated Colombian Atty. Gen. Carlos Mauro Hoyos, a supporter of reviving the U.S.-Colombian extradition treaty. Since then, no extraditions have been attempted.
Friday’s attacks came amid a strike by the nation’s judges, who are protesting the violence, citing in particular Wednesday night’s fatal shooting of Magistrate Carlos Valencia Garcia in Bogata, which occurred hours after he rejected appeals filed on behalf of two Medellin drug kingpins. The striking judges also charge that there is a lack of protection for members of their profession.
A foreign law enforcement official said that traffickers had been “hit very hard” so far this year by the police. More major cocaine labs have been dismantled in police raids this year than were hit in all of 1988.
More important, more than 250 tons of the chemicals used to process cocaine have been seized in Colombia this year--more than triple the amount confiscated in the entire year of 1988. “This has been a major blow,” he said.
“This comes at an interesting time when the judicial system is paralyzed,” he added.
According to Antioquia’s governor, Helena Herran de Montoya, Franklin Quintero had recently surrendered his bodyguards. “He thought it was more important to use this personnel in protecting judges,” she said.
The police chief had not mentioned any recent death threats, she said.
On Thursday night, an armed band intercepted a police van carrying 18 people under arrest and set them free. They included several suspected drug traffickers, officials said.
“It’s terrifying what is happening in Colombia,” said Justice Minister Monica de Grieff.
“The only way to confront this challenge is by fighting together, the government, judges, the armed forces and the citizenry to stop the wave of violence,” she said.