Drug barons' tentacles run deep in Colombian society

Colombia unleashed a new offensive against the country's drug barons as cocaine king Carlos Lehder Rivas went on trial this week in the United States. But the government faces immense obstacles in its attempt to eliminate what a former President called ``an organization stronger than the state.''

Mr. Lehder belonged to a criminal conglomerate that sells cocaine by the ton and controls the US market for the drug, according to the US federal indictment. Conservative estimates put their earnings at $6 billion a year.

The government's latest action includes charging another cartel leader with masterminding the October murder of a prominent leftist politician. The government's fast action in the case lends new credibility to President Virgilio Barco Vargas's antidrug efforts.

Police have also, according to press reports, cracked a plan by traffickers to assassinate agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the director of Colombia's national investigatory agency.

But the cocaine kings have made deep inroads into Colombian society that will be difficult to reverse. They have used their vast resources to wage a systematic campaign against the police and the courts.

The construction of the enormous, vertically integrated cocaine corporation that Lehder was part of, the Medell'in Cartel, required the cooperation of police and military officers from the coca fields to the processing laboratories.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the northern Colombian town that gave the cartel its name. Government prosecutors believe the cartel dominates the Medell'in police. President Barco ordered an investigation that resulted in widespread police firings earlier this year, and the government is getting ready to carry out another purge, according to a Cabinet minister who asked not to be named.

As for the courts, Colombia's antiquated judicial system was already overworked and undermanned in 1975, when former President Alfonso L'opez Michelson proposed sweeping reforms that were declared unconstitutional.

Since then, Colombia's drug lords have clogged the courts with legal maneuvers and silenced judges, attorneys, and witnesses with bribes, threats, and outright murder. ``The traffickers have caused a total breakdown in the judicial system,'' a foreign drug expert says.

Colombian magistrates are poorly paid. Lower-court judges earn as little as $250 a month, and that's not enough to hire a bodyguard. Thus it is not surprising if they are afraid they could be the next on the long list of official victims of the drug lords.

Police believe traffickers ordered the deaths of a Supreme Court justice, an executive of the national airlines, a crusading antidrug Army colonel, and Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla.

Foreign diplomats say the violence of the traffickers intimidated Supreme Court judges last December into declaring unconstitutional the 1979 extradition treaty with the US that allowed Colombian authorites to capture Lehder and send him to a Florida penitentiary.

The court said the extradition treaty could not be applied because of a technicality - a provisional president had promulgated the treaty. Two days later, however, Mr. Barco himself signed the treaty. The court later deadlocked over whether Barco's action was legal. In June, an independent judge threw out the treaty on a legal technicality.

It was a great victory for the cocaine cartel. The top drug traffickers had fought against the treaty for years. Most of them face no arrest warrants in their own country and are free now to walk the streets.

Barco at first considered reintroducing a new treaty, but later was persuaded his Congress would reject it. His Liberal Party controls the legislature, but party members are divided into warring camps based on ideology and personalities. More than a year after his election, Barco's agrarian and urban reform program remains stalled in the legislature.

Barco's chances of winning a vote on a new extradition treaty are further dimmed by the political influence traffickers wield through campaign contributions. Although Colombian law does not require disclosure of political donations, journalists report frequently that traffickers are heavily involved. The Medell'in Cartel has been heavily involved in politics for years. Lehder formed a neo-fascist movement that had some influence in his home region of Quindio.

The cartel leader being sought by the government for allegedly masterminding the murder of the leftist politician, Carlos Rodr'iguez Gacha, campaigned for the Conservatives in 1982 and the Liberals in 1986. But Pablo Escobar Gaviria, one of those listed in the US indictment, has had the greatest success. In 1982, he was elected alternate deputy to Congress for the Liberal Party. Press reports have named him as a financial backer of Liberal Party leader Alberto Santofimio Botero, recently appointed president of the party's national committee.

Mr. Escobar was eventually hounded out of office by then Sen. Lara Bonilla, who continued his antidrug crusade until he was shot down while serving as justice minister in 1984. Colombian society generally tolerated the traffickers until Lara Bonilla was shot, but his death so shocked Colombians that the drug lords had to retreat from public life.

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