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Covering Colombia's Drug War

Publisher Felipe Lopez says his nation is fighting America's battle, at an escalating cost. INTERVIEW

By Russell W. BakerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 15, 1989


LIKE every journalist in Colombia, Felipe Lopez Caballero speaks carefully, diplomatically. In the past 10 years, between 30 and 50 journalists have been killed covering the drug war. Two major newspapers have been bombed. As the well-respected editor and publisher of Semana, a Colombian newsweekly, Mr. Lopez was in New York last week to accept the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Prize for Inter-American reporting. Unlike most other magazines in Colombia, Semana is not tied to any political party. It has a reputation for reporting events in a neutral manner, without editorializing. None of the articles are signed. While this policy is not for security reasons, it has proved to be wise in the atmosphere of terror enveloping Colombia today.

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Mr. Lopez calls the magazine's efforts at neutrality ``a tightrope act.'' He says the Colombian press is in general practicing a great deal of self-censorship, but that the result is responsible, prudent journalism.

He agreed to an interview at his hotel the day after the awards ceremony. Some excerpts:

Monitor: What is the Colombian assessment of the war on drugs? Lopez: Many Colombian people feel they are fighting America's war. The $300 billion demand for drugs you have in the US right now is certainly going to produce someone to supply that demand. We hope to eradicate drugs from Colombia, but I don't think that will be a solution for the United States. With the amount of addiction you have, another country - it could be Peru, it could be Bolivia - could satisfy that demand.

We don't produce the drugs: The drugs are produced in Peru and Bolivia. ... We just get the violence, and - to a much lesser extent than people realize - the money, because the money the drug lords make is left outside of Colombia.

What's on Colombians' minds now?

We are more concerned about terrorism than we are about drug-running. Because terrorism is so intense, drug running has achieved a secondary priority. Every week there is a political assassination in Colombia. Or ... a judge is killed or a journalist is killed, or a plane is blown up. We really feel in a state of panic....

Imagine if in the United States you had, this week, [Washington Post executive editor] Ben Bradlee murdered; next week, a bomb destroying Rockefeller Center; the week after, a TWA plane is blown up in the air. Later, the attorney general murdered. After that, the leading presidential candidate. That's more or less ... what we have seen in Colombia in a three-month span.

What do the drug lords hope to gain from the violence?

The drug traffickers want to be treated as political prisoners, not as common criminals, so that they may be invited to the negotiating table in the same way that the government invited the guerrillas. They are exercising pressure to be considered an institutional problem. They would be willing, they say, to retire from drug trafficking forever.

What is the relationship between the guerrilla groups and the drug traffickers?

Six weeks ago there was an attempt to sign a peace treaty between the guerrilla groups and the drug traffickers. The largest guerrilla group, FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] and the drug traffickers are now in a state of war because the leftist party in Colombia, the Patriotic Union, has had 700 of its militants murdered by the drug traffickers. Many of them were representatives, deputies....

Why do the drug cartels murder leftists?