From the archives: Drug Lords Vow War on Colombia

BOGOTA, Colombia -- With a renewed wave of terror, bombings and death threats, Colombia's fugitive drug lords declared "total and absolute war" on the country's political and business leadership Thursday, ominously targeting even the families of those who resist them.

"We prefer a tomb in Colombia to a jail in the United States," the drug lords declared in an inflammatory communique left early Thursday at the site of one of four new bombing targets.

One man died in blasts at the Medellin headquarters of Colombia's two leading political parties. Another man was injured in one of three other attacks in and near Medellin that left the homes of two prominent politicians in flames and another pockmarked by bullets. Police said the attacks and the bombings in the early morning hours appeared to be coordinated.

On Thursday evening the government issued a series of new decrees aimed at pressing an official offensive against the drug traffickers. Included in the decrees are measures for destroying unauthorized private airstrips and disposing of property confiscated from suspected traffickers.

'All Who Have Persecuted'

The earlier statement from the drug lords said: "We declare total and absolute war on the government, the industrial and political oligarchy, the journalists who have attacked and outraged us, the judges who have sold themselves to the government, high court extraditing judges and presidential and sectorial (social, business and labor) associations, and all who have persecuted and attacked us."

It was signed "The Extraditables," a group that has been identified in the past as the top leadership of the notorious Medellin drug cartel, all of them wanted men in the United States.

Their warning added that "we will not respect the families of those who have not respected our families."

"These people are serious," said a leading Colombian newspaper editor who asked to remain unnamed because of the direct threat contained in the drug lords' message. "This is the most serious thing I have seen in my life," he added, noting that more than a dozen journalists and hundreds of government officials have been killed by cartel hit squads here in recent years.

Revulsion After Assassinations

Colombia's current crackdown against the drug cartels was begun against a background of national revulsion following the assassinations last week of an appeals court judge, a police chief and a leading presidential candidate who had vowed to combat narcotics trafficking.

Minutes after the murder Friday of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan as he was about to begin a campaign speech, President Virgilio Barco Vargas issued emergency decrees allowing extradition of drug suspects to the United States and confiscation of their property. Since then, police and military units have conducted more than 300 raids, detaining more than 10,000 people and seizing an estimated $200 million worth of drug suspects' property.

A Defense Ministry spokesman said Thursday that the "great majority" of those detained have been released without charges after questioning.

Under one of Thursday's additional decrees, owners will be required to personally claim seized properties and prove that they were acquired with legitimate funds within 10 days. It is unlikely that suspected traffickers will emerge from hiding to make their claims.

If they do not, their properties will be turned over to government agencies for redistribution, according to the decree. Farms and ranches will be broken up and distributed to landless peasants, urban properties will go to a family welfare agency, cash and automobiles will be given to a judicial fund to improve court working conditions, and planes and boats will be turned over to the armed forces.

Another decree requires provincial officials to inventory private airstrips. Unauthorized landing strips, often used for cocaine trafficking, will be destroyed.

The decree also requires distributors of aviation fuel to report to the government on their customers.

Under Colombian law, the country's Supreme Court is required to review the decrees and rule on their constitutionality within 40 days. One of Thursday's decrees provides special protection for justices conducting the review.

An American narcotics expert involved in the government crackdown said Thursday's bombings and threats fit the pattern of Medellin cartel behavior.

'They Are Cornered'

"We're not surprised," he said. "They are cornered, and their only hope is to intimidate and bend the will of the government.

"They have been very good at following through on what they say they will do," he said, adding his hope "that the government stands tall to this challenge."

"I'm very confident that if they (the government) can stay in there, they are going to win this war," the drug expert said.

The U.S. Embassy in Bogota, which normally operates under tight security measures, appeared Thursday to have heightened its alert. About 100 U.S. officials are attached to the embassy, and about two dozen agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration work in this country.

Passer-by Dies

The early morning wave of terror in Medellin, an industrial city of 2 million that has long been the headquarters of the biggest drug cartel, began with shattering explosions at the headquarters of Galan's faction of the ruling Liberal Party and the opposition Conservative Party.

Liberal Party office manager Gustavo Garcia said that a passer-by was killed in a blast that took the roof off the one-story concrete-and-brick building and shattered windows throughout the downtown business block.

At about the same time, the vacation homes just outside Medellin of former Finance Minister Edgard Gutierrez of the Liberal Party and Sen. Ignacio Velez Escobar of the Conservative Party were burned down. A third home, that of prominent industrialist Augusto Lopez Valencia, a top official of the Bavaria-Bouverie industrial conglomerate, was assaulted and shot up by a gang of about 10 armed men, according to a police spokesman.

Police also found and defused two suitcase bombs, each containing 22 pounds of explosives, at the Medellin stations of the nation's two top radio networks, Caracol and RCN, owned by families that are among Colombia's wealthiest.

The Medellin drug lords are known to be hostile to the old-money families of the industrial city in which they have made their headquarters. Their communique warning of attacks against the oligarchy was left with the suitcase bomb at the Caracol radio station, police said.

Destruction Vowed

"We will burn and destroy the industry's properties and mansions of the oligarchy," said the threatening statement of the drug lords.

A European diplomat said the warning to "the oligarchy" was clearly meant to scare the country's dominant upper classes so that they will press for a relaxation of the Barco government's crackdown on the traffickers.

"They are the target," the diplomat said. "The cartel is saying, 'If you are going to play ball with Barco, we're going to hit you.' "

Whereabouts Unknown

Meanwhile, the whereabouts of the major drug lords remained a mystery. The three top Medellin drug traffickers--Pablo Escobar, estimated to worth more than $3 billion; Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha and Jorge Ochoa--are believed to be in hiding somewhere in Colombia, despite reports that they may have fled to Panama, according to the American drug expert.

Panamanian President Manuel Solis Palma branded the reports as "false and tendentious" in a letter to Barco on Thursday.

"We're getting a lot of information of their being in many places," the drug expert said. "But my gut feeling is that Escobar is still here in Colombia.

"My educated guess is they prefer to stay in areas where they feel some sense of control, they feel secure. They know if they make a mistake in a third country, their chances of being extradited are significant."

The drug expert said that the American legal documents necessary to extradite Eduardo Martinez Romero, so-called finance minister of the Medellin cartel, who remains the top drug figure arrested since Saturday, are expected to arrive in Bogota today, in plenty of time to continue holding him until he can be sent to the United States.

Under Barco's emergency decree, Martinez would have been eligible for release early next week if the U.S. documents failed to arrive on time, the expert said.

He added that two other drug figures whom he described as "Class 1, in the same class as Pablo Escobar," also face quick extradition. They are Ana Beatriz Rodriguez Tamayo and Bernardo Londono Quintero, both under indictment in the United States.

In their threatening communique Thursday, the drug lords sought to portray themselves as peace-loving nationalists who had sought in vain to find accord with the government but had been persecuted by "anti-nationalists."

'Will Continue Our Struggle'

"We will not lower our flag, and we will continue our struggle and our total war against the anti-nationalists and the sellers of the motherland," their statement said.

"We have been asking the government for peace since the talks in Panama in 1984, when violence could have been avoided," the statement said. It apparently referred to a 1984 meeting between cartel representatives and former President Alfonso Lopez Michelsen in Panama during which they proposed repatriating $2 billion a year in return for a blanket amnesty from the government.

"The only reply we have received from the government has been repression--the arbitrary searches, unjust arrests of our families, the plundering of our homes," said the declaration.

Meanwhile, Israel's government sought to distance itself from actions of Israeli citizens in Colombia reported to have trained assassination teams.

No Permit Was Given

The Defense Ministry announced that a firm linked with drug lords in Colombia had never received a permit from the government to sell arms or give training to anyone in Colombia.

The firm, Hod Hahanit, a Tel Aviv company that specializes in security and military know-how, approached the Defense Ministry a year ago to ask permission to do business in Colombia but was turned down, according to the a Defense Ministry announcement. It was not clear why permission was withheld.

The announcement went on to say that another, unidentified firm violated Defense Ministry controls and worked for clients in Colombia.

In Israel, companies selling weapons or giving military training abroad must be licensed by the Defense Ministry. There are an estimated 800 such firms operating in scores of countries.

The operator of Hod Hahanit has been identified as Yair Klein, a retired Israeli army colonel. Government radio said he was expected to return to the country from a trip abroad next week. Government sources in Tel Aviv said that between 10 and 12 emloyees of the company had been in Colombia recently and left during the past few days.

American television broadcast videotape purporting to show Israeli mercenaries training "hit teams" of Colombian drug dealers. Colombian newspapers reported that foreigners, including Israelis, may have carried out the recent assassination of Luis Carlos Galan, a presidential candidate campaigning against the drug trade.

Times staff writer Daniel Williams, in Jerusalem, contributed to this story.