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Colombia Turns Corner in War on Drug Lords

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some of the Medellin cartel’s most notorious and ruthless cocaine bandits have fallen in battle. Its top trafficker, Pablo Escobar, is a man on the run, reportedly no longer managing his billion-dollar business.

American and Colombian officials say this country’s cocaine production is down by about one-fourth from mid-1989. Drug hauls by Colombian security forces so far this year exceed the record total for 1989. And a new president is vowing to battle violent drug lords “without concession.”

A grueling 12 months after assassins killed presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan on Aug. 18, 1989, and Colombia’s cocaine war exploded into a full-scale power struggle between government and gangsters, the government side clearly has the upper hand.

“I think the war in Colombia is being won at this stage,” said a U.S. anti-drug specialist in Bogota. “We’re a long way from victory, but at least the government has the initiative and the traffickers are on the run and trafficking is disrupted.”

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He added: “I feel very confident that if this momentum continues, Colombia will cease to be the cocaine capital of the world.”

President Cesar Gaviria cautioned in his inauguration speech Aug. 7 that halting cocaine traffic will take more than Colombia’s best efforts.

“Narcotics traffic is an international phenomenon that can be solved only through joint action by all affected countries, and no success will be possible in this area if there is not a substantial reduction of demand in the consuming countries,” he said.

Nevertheless, Gaviria declared that he would personally assume leadership of efforts by Colombian security forces to fight violent drug lords and put an end to their “acts of barbarity.”

Ten days before Gaviria’s inauguration, the traffickers announced a truce in their terror campaign, suspending the shootings and bombings that have killed hundreds of Colombians in the last year. Some analysts interpreted the lull as proof that kingpin Escobar, The Godfather, was in deep trouble as government forces pursued him from his Medellin base through the rugged hills of the Middle Magdalena Valley.

Others concluded that the traffickers wanted to test the new president’s response to a peace gesture. After Gaviria took office, however, authorities quickly made it clear that they were offering no reciprocal cease-fire.

An assault team of the National Police’s anti-drug Elite Force, raiding a house in Medellin last weekend, killed Gustavo de Jesus Gaviria, Escobar’s cousin and top henchman. Officials said Gaviria--no relative of the president--had been managing Escobar’s cocaine-trafficking empire and directing his terrorist hit squads while the boss concentrated on eluding his pursuers.

Gustavo Gaviria’s death was the latest in a series of debilitating blows to Escobar’s hierarchy.

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“Even though the emperor has not fallen, the empire is crumbling,” Gen. Miguel Maza Marquez, director of Colombia’s investigative police, told reporters in July, even before Gaviria’s death.

In June, the Elite Force said its men killed cartel enforcer John Jairo Arias Tascon, nicknamed Pinina, when he resisted arrest in Medellin. Officials said Pinina ranked No. 5 in the cartel and organized its paid assassins and bombers.

In July, Elite Force officers captured Hernan Henao, H. H., Escobar’s brother-in-law and also a key lieutenant. They also arrested Edgar Escobar Taborda, known as The Poet and described as The Godfather’s chief of propaganda and author of cartel communiques signed by the “The Extraditables.”

Since last August, police have extradited a score of middle-level figures associated with the cartel for trial on trafficking charges in the United States. More than a dozen others await extradition in prison.

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Undoubtedly the most severe blow to the cartel was the death of kingpin Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha in a fire fight with the Elite Force last December. Rodriguez Gacha, called El Mexicano because of his fondness for Mexico, was regarded as Escobar’s equal in power and violence.

Little has been heard during the last year of the Medellin cartel’s other main partners, brothers Jorge, Fabio and Juan Ochoa. The U.S. anti-narcotics specialist said that is because Colombian police are concentrating on the hunt for Escobar.

“I would like to see resources concentrated on the Ochoas for a few days,” he said. “I think we could get them just like that.”

Police and army forces began tightening the squeeze on the cartel last year with a succession of raids on major laboratories and trafficking depots. According to the American official, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, a couple of spectacular busts netted enough ether and other expensive chemicals to refine at least 200 tons of cocaine.

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He said such severe losses may have been the main reason for the cartel’s savage retaliation Aug. 18 with the killing of candidate Galan, then the presidential front-runner.

No sooner had Galan died than then-President Virgilio Barco Vargas issued previously drafted emergency decrees that further escalated the cocaine war. One measure allowed authorities to extradite suspected traffickers to the United States; another permitted the seizure of their homes, offices, businesses, ranches and other belongings.

In an official blitz, police and army troops detained thousands of persons and seized hundreds of properties, planes and vehicles. The Extraditables responded with a declaration of “total and absolute war” on the country’s business, political and government establishments.

Since then, nearly 300 terrorist bombs have killed hundreds of people, including 107 aboard a domestic jetliner blown up in November. Assassins said to be working for Escobar killed two more presidential candidates: leftist Bernardo Jaramillo in March and guerrilla-turned-politician Carlos Pizarro in April.

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In their truce communique, issued July 27, The Extraditables claimed to have killed 215 policemen and wounded 256.

The purpose of the “narco-terrorist” campaign was to intimidate Colombian society and bring public pressure on the government to make peace with the traffickers. Judging by the May 27 presidential election results, it didn’t work: Voters elected the candidate who had most outspokenly challenged the narco-terrorists, Cesar Gaviria.

The day after taking office, Gaviria told foreign correspondents that Colombian society “is not going to change its mind because of terrorism” and that the government’s commitment to fighting violence will not diminish.

One of his high priorities, he said, is to strengthen the criminal justice system so that it can resist bribes and terrorism. But he acknowledged that winning the cocaine war will not be easy.

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“The truth is that the fight has shown itself to be a difficult, complex task, that we are facing some of the most powerful criminal organizations that the world has known,” he said.

Francisco Santos, a columnist and managing editor of the newspaper El Tiempo, said repairing the criminal justice system is the key to government victory.

“If we don’t do that, we have no tools to fight this thing,” Santos said. “If Gaviria leaves office with a justice system that is good, strong and efficient, he will be the best president we’ve had in 20 years.”

Without an effective Colombian justice system, the only hope for convicting Colombian traffickers is in the United States, and it is extradition that triggers some of the most violent responses from The Extraditables.

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The Extraditables have made it clear that they want a planned constitutional assembly to write a ban on extradition into the constitution. Many Colombian analysts speculate that Gaviria, in an effort to dampen narco-terrorism, will not actively oppose an anti-extradition amendment and will order only a few token extraditions under the current emergency decree.

“It would be a prudent measure to prevent the terrorism from flaring up,” said political scientist Rodrigo Losada.

Losada said drug lords, for their part, may have learned that “trying to use terrorism to pressure the government is not very profitable from an economic point of view.” Government retaliation has been costly for Escobar’s organization.

And if traffickers maintain the peace, Losada predicted, it will be easier for the government to give the problem of cocaine a lower priority.

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“The great concern of the government is violence,” he said. “If there is no more violence, the concern for narcotics trafficking would recede into the background, except in international policy.”

The government would not forget about the traffickers, he said. “It will not tell the police to stop looking for them, but rather to do so at a moderate rate.”

Trafficking could flourish in remote areas of the country, which is bigger than California and Texas combined, with the traffickers avoiding clashes with the law. The government does not have the resources to police all of Colombia’s sparsely populated Amazon forests and Andean mountains.

But Losada and other analysts warn that such a scenario of peaceful coexistence could have dire results for Colombia within a few years. Left to prosper quietly, trafficking cartels could further spread their corrupting wealth through the country’s power structure, buying increasing numbers of politicians, officials, judges and others.

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“Then the cry would go up again: The drug traffickers are corrupting us,” Losada said. “It might be too late. Or the fight might start again--with a higher cost.”


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