Covering Colombia's Drug War

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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:

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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?

The drug traffickers have been identified as people who are hostile toward communists and that is one of the bases for them to request political treatment. They said ``the guerrillas are against capitalism; we are against communism; so why are we going to have different treatment than they? They have killed a lot of people in their war against capitalism, and we have killed a lot of people in our war against communism.''

What are their motives?

Their motives are to not spend the rest of their lives in jail in the United States, or in the jungle in Colombia. Right now, they have no choice: Either they are extradited to the United States where they have life sentences, or they live the rest of their lives in the jungle, surrounded by hundreds of bodyguards.

If you have $5 billion and you live in the jungle, the $5 billion isn't going to be very useful. People who make money want to have swimming pools and Cadillacs. These people miscalculated their situation and now their lives, in terms of their aspirations, are meaningless. So they want out - but through negotiations. They would like to be treated with benevolence by Colombian justice.

Where do most Colombians stand on the issue of talks?

The Colombian public is intimidated, and in opinion polls, more than half show a willingness to arrive at some sort of negotiated solution. But the fact that the people have been intimidated does not mean the government is willing. This government would under no circumstances change.

[The drug lords'] hope is that the next government can start from zero - and the current government has only six months left in its term. Some candidates are willing to talk about negotiations. But the front-runner, C'esar Gaviria Trujillo, is a hard-liner.

Nobody in the Colombian media has ever written one single line in favor of sitting down and negotiating with the drug traffickers. Nobody. The media does not believe in it.

If the government did seek accommodation, how would that affect the drug flow?

Nobody thinks that if these people are arrested the drug trafficking would stop.... But they know that terrorism would stop.

In Colombia, what effects of the American drug effort can be seen?

The assistance the American government is giving the Colombian government is considered by us symbolic, a friendly gesture. Many Colombians think the military hardware [the US is giving] is intended to fight the guerrilla groups later on, not the drug traffickers now. We are receiving some airplanes which are used for bombing: But you don't bomb drug traffickers. So the only useful thing we have received is a few Black Hawk helicopters.

To track down these drug lords, you need a lot of electronic devices, not planes. ... But helicopters are very useful. Now you could say, `if this is the greatest crusade in the history of mankind, are three helicopters enough?'

Can the United States expect resolution of its drug problem on Colombian soil?

It would be unrealistic, because if you eradicated it there, another country would take Colombia's place. We are just at a geographical point at which it is convenient to send the drugs to the US. But I think the United States should be more concerned about addiction than about interdiction.

The two governments have made very serious efforts to stop drug trafficking. In Colombia, you have an all-out war to stop this. In America, you have a huge effort. But you have budget problems....If by the end of this century the situation is exactly like the one in which we're now living, then the people of the United States should begin the century with the possibility of legalizing drugs.

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