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Colombia: War on the Cocaine Mafia

5 minute read
Hunter R. Clark

An outraged President takes on the drug traffickers

It was an unconditional declaration of war that Colombian President Belisario Betancur Cuartes issued from the pulpit of the cathedral in Neiva earlier this month. He had walked to the cathedral behind the flag-draped coffin of his slain Justice Minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, 37. “There will be no truce for the narcotics traffickers,” Betancur vowed, his voice trembling with emotion. “There will be punishment without mercy.” The mourners broke into applause when the President declared, “The international drug criminals will see us standing proudly before a homeland that stands united in repudiation!”

Lara was murdered with a submachine gun on April 30 by two men riding on a motorcycle. One of them was killed when the machine crashed. The survivor confessed that he had been paid $21,000 to carry out the killing. Lara, a vigorous opponent of narcotics traffickers, became the first Cabinet official to die at the hands of the Colombian mafia. Within hours of his death, Colombian police, army and security forces launched the most extensive crackdown on the narcotics trade in the country’s history, one that promises to help the U.S. in its uphill struggle to stem the ever rising tide of Colombian cocaine and marijuana. The U.S. has backed the Colombian government’s antinarcotics efforts with $7 million in aid since 1983, and the State Department has requested an additional $10.3 million for next year.

The war is being waged not only in the countryside, where marijuana and cocaine are grown and processed, but also inside Colombia’s corrupt bureaucracy. After Lara’s funeral, Betancur declared a nationwide state of emergency, giving the army a free hand to arrest suspects without a warrant and try them in military courts. Hundreds of people have been detained so far. About 400 judges accused of handling narcotics cases improperly will be removed, as well as 280 members of the national police force who haveallegedly accepted bribes from the Colombian mafia.

The authorities have expropriated about 150,000 acres of land belonging to the cocaine mafia. A March 10 raid uncovered one of the largest cocaine-processing operations in the world: a modern complex 430 miles southeast of Bogotá that boasted 19 laboratories, where a thousand workers produced an estimated 25 tons of cocaine a month. The plant’s 13.8 tons of cocaine represented roughly one-fifth of U.S. yearly consumption (estimated street price: $1.2 billion). When the police dumped it into the nearby Yari River, the waters ran white with foam.

The military has also confiscated tons of weapons, along with private yachts and aircraft, and destroyed more than 200 other clandestine airstrips. A veteran pilot described the country’s underworld air traffic as resembling “a swarm of bees combing the jungle for their honey.”

Betancur has agreed to a U.S. request for extradition of 23 narcotics suspects, many of them sought by authorities in Miami, which is becoming one of the world’s major cocaine capitals. Most wanted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is Carlos Lehder, 33, who has been indicted in Florida for cocaine importation and distribution. He is rumored to be in Peru.

Meanwhile, the man most wanted by Colombian authorities is Pablo Escobar, 34, a prime suspect in the Lara killing. Escobar is believed to have united the 15 or so families that control the bulk of Colombia’s drug industry into a consortium. This organization, known as the Medellin Mafia, directs most of the nation’s narcotics operations, from the processing of coca leaves into paste, much of which is imported from Bolivia and Peru, to the marketing of cocaine and marijuana in the U.S. According to Colombian police, Escobar’s personal holdings include at least 15 airplanes, numerous ranches throughout Colombia and real estate holdings in the U.S. At his 10,000-acre spread near Puerto Triunfo, Escobar kept a private zoo of 1,500 animals, among them a five-ton elephant. He was elected to Colombia’s Congress in 1982 as head of his own political party, and is still a Congressman. He is rumored to be in Australia.

Escobar allegedly paved the way in the late 1970s for the Colombians’ ever growing stake in the U.S. narcotics traffic by unleashing the “Cocaine Cowboys,” a squad of brutal, ruthless killers. “The Colombian mafia like to hit you where you hurt most, especially your family,” explains Lucho Arango, 29, a Bogotá office worker whose family ran afoul of the mafia. According to Psychologist Gonzalo Amador, mafia enforcers will kill their enemies’ wives, children, servants and family friends. They have even been known to kill the family parrot “to keep it from talking,” he says.

Many Colombians doubt whether the government will be able to sustain its crackdown for very long. They fear that once the state of emergency is lifted, the drug traders will be back in business. However, John Phelps, a U.S. drug-enforcement official in Colombia, believes that if the government’s war on drug traffickers continues at its present pace, the mafia’s ability to mass produce and distribute narcotics will be crippled. Certainly, President Betancur has much of the population behind his efforts to stamp out the drug trade. A Colombian woman may have best expressed the attitude of many toward the mafia. A few days ago she was seen in Bogotá looking at the cover of a weekly magazine showing the dead minister’s widow and two sons crying over his coffin. Said she: “Kill them, kill them! They are the excrement of our society.”

—By Hunter R. Clark.

Reported by Bernard Diederich and Tom Quinn/Bogotá

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