Colombia Wins One in Drug War

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE death of Medell'in drug baron Jos'e Gonzalo Rodr'iguez Gacha may not bring a significant decline in cocaine shipments, but Colombians hope it will mean less violence. Reaction to Friday's killing of the drug lord by a Colombian elite commando team approaches euphoria. ``This was one of the biggest blows to the heart of the drug-trafficking mafia,'' says Carlos Arturo Casadiego, inspector general of the General Police.

Miguel Maza M'arquez, the head of Colombia's investigative police, called the drug baron's demise ``the best Christmas present to Colombia and the world.''

Rodriguez Gacha was considered the most vicious of the Medell'in cocaine barons. Officials say he was one of the main organizers of a recent wave of terror attacks, including the Dec. 6 bombing of the investigative police headquarters in which 63 people were killed. He was blamed for the assassination of a justice minister, a left-wing politician, and a leading newspaper editor.

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Rodriguez Gacha died Friday along with his teenage son and five bodyguards in a shootout with police at a ranch in northern Colombia.

Optimism has been muted by the fact that Pablo Escobar and Jorje Luis Ochoa, two other major drug kingpins, remain at large.

Colombian intelligence sources say Rodr'iguez Gacha had financed an army of hit squads. It was not known if this corps would seek revenge for the loss of its head.

Officials have increased military surveillance in cities throughout Colombia. ``Despite the sudden attack against the Medell'in cartel, we are not going to let our guard down, and we will continue the search for the rest of the organization's members,'' says National Police Director Miguel Antonio Gom'ez Padilla.

Rumors have surfaced in military and political circles that Rodriguez Gacha had fallen from favor with other drug barons. Apparently they felt his excessive violence caused the government's recent crackdown on drugs and the subsequent loss of cocaine revenues.

Hailed as Colombia's first major victory in its four-month-old war against the drug trade, the killing of Rodriguez Gacha has provided a strong psychological boost to Colombia's antidrug efforts.

Just over two weeks ago, Mr. Escobar escaped into the jungle after being surrounded by more than 100 specially trained troops. Scores of allegations have surfaced that both the Army and police have been infiltrated by the drug traffickers.

Observers here say Friday's operation against Rodriguez Gacha may help dispel the notion that Colombia cannot fight drug traffickers. ``The myth of invulnerability of the barons is broken,'' said an editorial in El Tiempo, a Bogot'a daily.

Despite police insistence that they were forced to shoot Rodr'iguez Gacha after he and his men hurled grenades and sprayed machine-gun fire, Colombians appear relieved Rodr'iguez Gacha was not taken alive. ``One must not rejoice over the death of any human being. But this man did so much harm to our country,'' says Interior Minister Carlos Lemos Simmonds.

By killing Rodr'iguez Gacha, Colomian police sidestepped one of the country's most thorny political issues: extradition.

Rodriguez Gacha faced seven indictments in the United States and was among the ``12 most wanted'' Colombian drug kingpins sought by that country.

A proposal to hold a public referendum on whether to allow extradition of accused drug traffickers died in Colombia's congress last week.

Meanwhile, drug smuggling to the US and Europe continues. The Medell'in and Cali cartels control more than 80 percent of world cocaine production, US officials say.

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