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Colombia Drug War Takes a Turn

Cartel appears to switch from bombing to kidnapping as government softens hard line

By Stan YarbroSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 16, 1990


COLOMBIANS are debating whether drug traffickers here have resumed their campaign of terror after a two-month ``cease-fire'' or are trying lower-profile tactics to pressure the government. Authorities blame the cocaine cartel for recent abductions of seven journalists, including the daughter of a former Colombian president, as well as for the Sept. 25 killings of 19 people near the southern city of Cali.

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``We have information that the Medell'in cartel has sent its terrorists to several major cities,'' says a police official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The traffickers ``are planning more kidnappings. They are threatening police and other institutions with new bombings. This war has definitely begun again.''

That view is rejected, however, by many Colombians, who say the cartel leaders are trying in their own twisted way to end the antidrug war, not escalate it.

``The cartel is using the kidnappings as a trial balloon to gauge the government's reaction, to see if it will quietly make concessions,'' says Enrique Santos Calder'on, a columnist at Bogot'a's El Tiempo newspaper and cousin of Francisco Santos Calder'on, the paper's abducted managing editor.

Medell'in drug bosses, he adds, have decided to use selective kidnappings rather than indiscriminate bombings to pressure the government. The cartel seems to realize, he says, that leaving the bodies of innocents to be filmed by television only strengthens the government's resolve.

Apparently part of its new, subtler campaign, armed men kidnapped Mr. Calder'on on Sept. 19 after killing his driver.

Several weeks earlier, a team of six journalists disappeared after leaving Bogot'a to interview leaders of the National Liberation Army, a Colombian leftist guerrilla group. The rebels later denied holding the journalists, led by Diana Turbay de Uribe, a Bogot'a magazine editor and daughter of former President Julio C'esar Turbay Ayala.

Officials in the administration of President C'esar Gaviria Trujillo did not acknowledge the cartel's responsibility for the kidnappings until Oct. 3. The belated reaction led some Colombians to speculate the government was negotiating with the cartel. Mr. Gaviria moved to silence rumors by reiterating that his government would not deal with traffickers.

But before the kidnappings, the president had offered surrendering drug suspects a trial in Colombia rather than extradition to the United States.

A caller to El Tiempo said no cartel members would surrender. But last week, Justice Minister Jaime Giraldo Angel said one figure was weighing the option.

Juan Tokatlian, a political scientist at Bogot'a's Los Andes University, says Pablo Escobar Gaviria, the cartel's leader, fears possible defections from the organization's ranks. Mr. Escobar, he speculates, may have ordered the kidnappings to reassert authority and pressure the government.

Mr. Tokatlian says traffickers' demands for a full amnesty is an extreme, but negotiable, position.

``Escobar may be looking simply for a greater government guarantee of his safety if he turns himself in,'' Tokatlian says. ``These hostages are his security while he searches for the modus operandi of the government's offer of reduced sentences.''