As the United States tightens its grip on Colombia, officials in Bogota try a new approach — narco-diplomacy.
AN UNUSUALLY public fight has broken out between the world's largest cocaine consumer and the world's largest cocaine exporter. Congress and the Clinton administration have grown impatient with Colombia's efforts in the drug war, which they believe to be not only insufficient but possibly compromised. Colombian officials say they are doing all they can, but that the United States is not doing enough to reduce the demand for drugs. Officials on each side are trying to cooperate in the fight against cocaine traffickers, but the bitterness is palpable.
Prospects were sunnier last December 2, after Colombian police finally located fugitive drug lord Pablo Escobar and shot him dead. Though Escobar had eluded would-be captors for 16 inonths, his Achilles heel was concern for his family.
Colombian authorities offered to find asylum for Escobar's wife and daughter, got them on a plane to Germany, and tracked the drug lord's communications with them after Germany turned the pair away. Traced phone calls led police to his hideout in Medellin. As they closed in on the house, Escobar fled to the rooftop, where he was taken out in his slippers.
Given his role in the wave of terrorism Colombia suffered in the late 1980s, Escobar's death created some sense of relief, if not rejoicing, in both countries. But by the time Escobar met his end, the drug war already looked stalled in Colombia. Indeed, from the U.S. perspective, the flow of good news from the front lines in Colombia seemed to dry up as Escobar's Medellin cartel dwindled. Cocaine exports remain at high levels, and a new phenomenon, traffic in Colombian-produced heroin, is on the rise. Europe has joined the United States as a major consumer of Colombian drugs, and, to top it off, this year the country edged out Bolivia to become the second-leading grower of the coca plant, the raw material for processed cocaine.
A network of traffickers based largely in the city of Cali is believed to have masterminded this surge in all aspects of narco-trafficking. And while the Medellin cartel terrorized government and society alike, the Cali group relies mainly on bribes, not bullets, to ensure that its will is done.
"The Cali traffickers are a lot smarter," says Carlos Cavelier, a former congressman and minister of justice. "They don't punch you in the eye, they pick your pocket. But they're much more powerful, and much worse."
As Cavelier suggests, the Cali group's soft touch actually worsens Colombia's lot. For while the government is no longer besieged by frontal assaults, the corruption spreading through Colombian society tarnishes every citizen and business and makes public officials look weak. Current President Ernesto Samper [sarn-pare' has said, "Corruption in institutions is more damaging than a bomb planted by Pablo Escobar."
So how extensive is corruption in Colombia? Just a few examples are suggestive. In 1989, over 3,500 policemen were dismissed for cause, usually for taking bribes. In late 1993, four bodyguards for the nation's top prosecutor were fired for links to traffickers. Humberto de la Calle, Colombia's current vice president, recently described his own suspicions. "I believe there is some flow of money from narco-traffickers to the congressional level," De la Calle told the Washington Post this summer. "I would not say there are congressmen who are spokesmen for drug dealers, but I would say there are congressmen who listen to drug dealers."
A result of corruption is this: Every Colombian, in or out of government, is viewed with suspicion. U.S. officials seem to be constantly asking: Whose side are you on? And if you're not toeing the drug war line, you must be working for the other side.
FRUSTRATION within the U.S. anti-drug bureaucracy was evident when Escobar was killed last December. Acting Drug Enforcement Administration chief Stephen Greene said at the time that the Cali traffickers were next, since now "the full resources of the Colombian government and the United States government can be devoted to their apprehension." Robert Bonner, who had recently retired as head of the DEA, said much the same thing. But Bonner sounded as if urging a strategic shift toward Cali was something that drug-fighting agents were already tiring of doing.
They probably were. Even the State Department, whose annual report on the drug situation is often cast in the reserved language of diplomacy, questioned the government's commitment to fighting Cali in 1990. Invoking the government's vigorous battle against the Medellin cartel, the 1991 report noted: "To date, [Colombian] security forces have not dedicated the same amount of resources against the Cali cartel. [Officials] claim that a total drug war on both cartels at once would not be manageable." At least some skepticism was implied.
These reactions suggest a mounting fear in the United States that the Cali-based traffickers cannot be defeated. Whether it is because they are too powerful or too connected, or because the government is either too corrupt or too weak, the Cali traffickers might survive. And almost the only thing the United States can do is use carrot-and-stick methods to urge the government to be more aggressive.
There is no doubt that the Cali traffickers are brutal black-market businessmen who are damaging Colombian society. And Colombians have already suffered more than most from the side effects of drug prohibition, so they don't need much instruction on the dangers posed by traffickers. But still, there's no guarantee that this nation of 36 million, stinging from criticism and exhausted from years of war, will continue to follow the U.S. lead on how to attack the Cali group.
To American leaders, there is only one option — to fight, keep fighting, and, if that doesn't work, fight some more. After all, the anti-drug mentality of many U.S. leaders was forged amid much patriotic bluster. In the 1980s, Congress declared, "For the future of our country and the lives of our children, there can be no substitute for total victory." Hyperbole, yes, but a clear statement of the U.S. bottom line.
Washington's skepticism of Colombia's will to fight dates back to 1991. By early that year, the three Ochoa brothers, each reputed Medellin leaders, had surrendered to authorities. The surrender terms for each varied, but at the time the maximum penalty in Colombia for drug trafficking was 12 years in prison.
In June 1991, Escobar surrendered to authorities and holed up inside a posh prison with his own hand-picked guards. To Colombians, Escobar's surrender was a victory, but all the United States saw was leniency. Somewhat defensively, the Colombian government placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post using the capture of Escobar and other Medellin bosses as a springboard. "For years," the text read above photos of five Medellin traffickers, "they were drug lords. Now, they're dead or in jail." A year later, Escobar would escape, and the criticism would continue.
Also in 1991, the government granted the highest wish of the Medellin group: an end to extradition of Colombians to the United States. That and other constitutional changes laid the groundwork for future fights with Colombia's nosy neighbor to the north.
DRUG PEACE proposals are not entirely new in Colombia, but in the last few years, they have come from surprising sources. Back in the late 1980s, the Medellin traffickers demanded negotiations with the Colombian government. When President Virgilio Barco -'refused, Medellin declared war.
By 1989, the cartel was issuing periodic peace offers. The U.S. State Department described these in its 1990 annual report: "The trafficktrs are desperately trying to exploit public ambivalence about the drug war and a long Colombian tradition of using dialogue to avoid problems." The next year, the same report noted, "[President Cesar] Gaviria's election suggests that many Colombians support the government's hard line against the most violent traffickers.... Gaviria was the only candidate to support President Barco's firm policies."
Gaviria's administration, however, issued an executive order encouraging the surrender of traffickers and offering them attractive terms. That netted, most prominently, the Ochoa brothers. Surrender inducements were included in 1991 constitutional changes that gave Colombia a pleabargaining process for the first time.
Prosecutor General Gustavo de Greiff followed through on the surrender policy, generating friction along the way. [See sidebar, page 15.] By his reading of the law, De Greiff was required to offer terms of surrender to traffickers and encourage them to plea-bargain for modest sentences.
This spring, as negotiations with Cali traffickers were reported to be under way, the reaction from the United States was swift. The State Department, Justice Department, DEA and congressional leaders all chimed in with their objections. Their message: Never mind that plea-bargaining is a fixture of U.S. justice, these are the world's top drug lords. Perhaps the greatest fear, from the drug warriors' perspective, was that surrenders might become popular in Colombia as an alternative to the war strategy.
The surrender threat didn't last long. The Colombian magazine Cambio 16 reports that in March of this year, President Gaviria scuttled what had appeared to be a done deal with top Cali traffickers. Even as the top executive branch official, he could not directly block any agreement. So Gaviria told De Greiff and others that no matter what deal they struck, he would not guarantee the safety of the traffickers after they went to prison.
"I had several meetings with [President Gaviria]," De Greiff says in an interview, "trying to convince him of the merits of having the traffickers surrender, but he was under the influence of the U.S. government. He was hearing that the United States might take economic reprisals, moves like duty increases on Colombian exports. So he destroyed the possibility of there being any surrenders."
With tensions already high during the debate over the surrender policy, more trouble was on its way. For years to come, 1994 will be regarded as a major low point in the U.S.- Colombia relationship. In March, De Greiff published in the Washington Post his view that legalization of the drug trade must be considered to end the profiteering and violence engendered by prohibition. His views dovetailed with a growing movement among prominent Colombians, including Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Mdrquez and Cambio 16, which has promoted a pro-legalization manifesto in Latin America.
However, De Greiff s controversial views, and a dispute over evidence-sharing between the U.S. Justice Department and his office, made the prosecutor general a lightning rod for mounting problems between the two countries. In frustration, Justice announced the suspension of a program sharing evidence in drug cases with Colombian authorities.
Anti-De Greiff rhetoric from the United States increased. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) penned an op-ed article titled "Law Enforcement a Kingpin Could Love." Kerry wrote, "[De Greiff's] positions are nearly identical with those of the [Cali] cartel itself. As such, they demonstrate the degree to which the Cali cartel has already gained influence in the very offices of Colombian law enforcement that are supposed to protect society against the cartel." Despite the implications of his language, Kerry later denied he was labeling De Greiff as corrupt.
Later, State Department Counselor Timothy Wirth wrote April 25 in the Post, "De Greiff advocates nothing less than a surrender to the powerful Colombian cocaine syndicates.... His recommendations would be bad for Colombia, bad for the United States and bad for the world."
During the crossfire over De Greiff s positions, the month of May brought two more sudden events. First, on May 1, the United States stopped sharing information with Colombia and Peru from its radar stations in each country. It wasn't as if Washington were calling off the fight. But at the behest of the Pentagon, Justice Department lawyers determined that if any U.S.-provided information were used to shoot down a civilian aircraft over South American jungles, the United States could be held liable under international law. Neither Peru nor Colombia would agree not to shoot down suspected traffickers' planes, and the radars went down.
Then on May 5, acting in a case that had been under review for months, the country's Constitutional Court legalized possession of illicit drugs. The judicial branch of Colombian government had exercised its independence at the wrong time. Government leaders, including lame duck President Gaviria, were left to the custodial duty of proposing changes in the law — including a constitutional plebiscite — to roll back the court ruling. Thus far, they have succeeded only in banning public use of illegal drugs, with citizens' rights to possession and drug use in the home left intact.
In this environment, how could drug warriors regain their foothold in Colombia? There was an election coming up that could provide leverage for the United States.
Two candidates vied for the presidency in a runoff election in June. Each had first-hand experience of the country's drug war. Samper, of Gaviria's Liberal Party, still has four bullets in his body from a 1989 assassination attempt by the Medellin cartel. Andres Pastrana, the losing candidate, had been kidnapped by the Medellin cartel in 1988 and freed by police a week later. Neither candidate made drugs a focus of his campaign.
Samper's background includes at least one controversial element. In 1980, he wrote a report for the Colombian National Association of Financial Institutions (ANIF), a group of business leaders, recommending legalization of marijuana. (He reversed his position in 1990, and, when the Constitutional Court's legalization ruling was issued during this year's campaign, Samper said he opposed it.)
Samper fell under more suspicion shortly after the election, when audio tapes of mysterious origin seemed to tie his campaign to traffickers based in Cali. On the tape, Cali traffickers discussed an offer of about $3.6 million to the Samper campaign with journalist Alberto Giraldo, who was to act as an intermediary for the deal. An anonymous U.S. law enforcement official seized on the controversy following release of the tapes. "This confirms everything we've been saying about this guy for years," the official told the Washington Post June 22.
Giraldo later said both Samper's and Pastrana's campaigns were offered Cali cash, but they rejected it. A Colombian government investigation of the campaigns also found no evidence that traffickers' cash had passed into candidates' hands.
But Joe Toft, who retired in September from a seven-year term as head of DEA operations in Colombia, doesn't buy the exoneration. Citing unspecified "intelligence information," Toft has told the press he believes Samper got "millions of dollars" in drug money. Though he declined to assist Colombian authorities investigating both the tapes and the financing of the three top presidential campaigns, Toft is making a splash in the Colombian and U.S. media by trumpeting his allegations. Of Toft's charges, one of the investigators says, "Toft says that he knows Samper got drug money, but based on what? If he has evidence, he should have provided it to us, because that was in our interest also."
COLOMBIANS don't believe that the United States is doing enough to combat drug demand. Although overall drug use in this country is down substantially from the early 1980s, hard-core users — thought to consume as much as 80 percent of the heroin and cocaine brought into the United States — have numbered around 2 to 3 million consistently. Currently, American drug policies reach very few hard-core users, and efforts to use harm reduction approaches to target users more effectively are still more popular at the grass-roots level than on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, Congress has dropped the ball on drug treatment, cutting more than $300 million in each of the past two years from the Clinton administration's requested budgets.
On the other hand, the United States is still inflicting harsh punishments on small-time dealers and casual drug users. Many aspects of the domestic war in the United States would be unthinkable in Colombia, with its estimated 600,000 users. The nation's supreme court ensured that by protecting drug possession and use within the privacy rights of citizens.
After all the back-and-forth of the last several months, are the two countries ready for a rapprochement? Token efforts seem to be mending the relationship. De Greiff is now the former prosecutor general. The U.S. radars are about to be turned on again, thanks to the Clinton administration and allies like Senator Kerry, who authored a bill exempting the U.S. of blame for downed aircraft in the Andes. Gaviria can now be found in Washington, where he is secretary general of the Organization of American States. The United States cast its OAS vote for him.
Samper will be pressed hard to play Washington's game. Before he was elected, on May 25 Samper told the Associated Press, "Colombia cannot be a Vietnam in the war against drugs." But since then he has been concil-iatory, promising at one point to "aggres-sively win the war on drugs." In that vein, the new prosecutor general, Alfonso Valdivieso, issued warrants for the arrest of the same reputed Cali leaders who were negotiating to surren-der earlier this year.
But Samper has also put U.S. leaders on notice that their performance will be watched. While vow-ing that Colombia will be fully engaged in the drug war, in aiuly letter Samper called on Congress to "establish mandatory targets for the reduction of domestic drug consumption and to provide the resources needed to achieve those targets."
Truth be told, the narco-trafficking problem is far bigger than almost anything either government can do abput it, alone or working together. Drug prohibition promises wealth to anyone willing to exploit the opportunity. And there are limits to what a government in a free society can do about the private behavior of its citizens. Bickering between the United States and Colombia is to be expected as the drug war stretches out over the years.
Cavelier, the former congressman and justice minister, says Colombians are as rattled from their experiences in the drug war as they are from the recent confrontation with the United States. "We have tried the war, and we got some results, at a great cost," Cavelier says, "But now it feels like we're back where we started. There is a lot of frustration and the big question of what to do next. We can't just wait for the traffickers to take over."
At press time, Samper turned bold again. In a statement to Time magazine, he said he was open to a surrender deal with Cali, exchanging lenient terms for a major shutdown in production. "It is no good to have the cartel bosses in jail if they continue narco-trafficking," Samper wrote. "It is more important to dismantle the cartels."
DEA officials immediately put their money on Valdivieso to stop the deal. At least one U.S. official was talking retaliation if it went through. "We're a sovereign country too," huffed the unnamed source, "We can make our decisions without consulting them, too.