Colombian Drug Policy Faces Prime Test With Escobar

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

PABLO ESCOBAR GAVIRIA, the most infamous of the Medellin cocaine cartel's founding leaders, is finally behind bars. Mr. Escobar's surrender had been expected for months, but came only after a special assembly created to rewrite Colombia's Constitution voted to ban what he apparently feared most - extradition to the United States for trial.

Escobar's surrender Wednesday came shortly after the ban was voted, and more than a year after a leniency program to woo traffickers to surrender was put in place by President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo. US and Colombian officials worry, however, that a weakened justice system will be unable to give traffickers any but minor sentences.

Colombians and US officials also say the surrender will do little to curb the country's drug trafficking and associated violence. US authorities contend that Escobar's surrender will have little impact on Colombia's giant cocaine trade, with exports estimated at 500 tons to 700 tons a year.

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"People who think that the removal of one individual from a narcotics organization will make cocaine disappear don't understand the structure of the business," said Bob Martinez, the head of the US office of drug control policy, on a recent visit to Bogota. "It hurts to lose a leader, but there are many who are ready to move in and replace him."

Another US official in Bogota said Colombia's drug traffickers are sending as much cocaine to the US as they did before 1989 when the latest government crackdown began. And there is still doubt that Escobar, who convinced the government to jail him in a high-security ranch house outside Medellin, is truly giving up his business.

"Escobar's organization will remain intact and continue to flourish," a Western diplomat says. "You can liken it to a factory owner. He doesn't have to show up at work every day for things to keep functioning."

Many Colombians agree. A recent national poll of 440 Colombians, conducted by Bogots Semana magazine, found 78 percent believed the surrender would do little to change the drug trade.

"I consider the drug trafficker's surrender one isolated fact ... that has more to do with a political reality than the disappearance of drug trafficking in the country," said Eduardo Sarmiento, a Bogota economist, quoted in Semana.

The "political reality" Mr. Sarmiento was refering to is the antidrug policy President Gaviria adopted after taking office last year. Mr. Gaviria abandoned the frontal assault on drug traffickers undertaken by his predecessor President Virgilio Barco. Mr. Barco's government stressed traffickers' extradition to the US and other tough measures.

Gaviria has offered traffickers lenient treatment including reduced prison sentences in Colombia, if they surrender and confess to even one crime. The president says his aim is to end the bombing and selective assassinations that have killed hundreds of Colombians.

But even the most optimistic senior government official says it is "difficult to tell" if Escobar's surrender will reduce violence.

Eduardo Pizarro, a Bogota political scientist says the surrender will reduce drug terrorism in the short term, but that "over the long term, it will strengthen new drug bosses as business continues to flourish." Mr. Pizarro's brother, Carlos Pizarro, was assassinated while running for president in 1990.

The creation of more drug bosses implies more violence, according to a recent study by Fedesarrollo, a private research center in Bogota. The study notes the rise in Colombia's drug trade and its murder rate throughout the 1980s. It says 40,000 of 141,232 murders during the decade were drug related.

But Gaviria's policy has produced more than Escobar's surrender. The three Ochoa brothers, Juan David, Jorge Luis, and Sabio Ocho who helped Escobar found the Medellin cartel in the late 1970s are also behind bars. The Ochoas, all wanted in the US on trafficking charges, surrendered separately in the months after Gaviria decreed the leniency program last September.

Unlike the Ochoas, however, who face only minor charges in Colombia, Escobar is accused of masterminding assassinations and terrorist attacks that have left hundreds dead since 1984.

The drug chieftan refused for months to follow the Ochoas' lead because of fears that his numerous enemies would try to kill him in jail. He also feared extradition to the US because its justice system is better protected against bribes and threats. Scores of Colombian judges have been killed.

The government says such violence is no longer a problem. Escobar, who faces at least four murder charges here, is to be tried by a system of "invisible" judges whose identities are being kept secret. But critics say traffickers will break the shell of anonymity.

"Colombia's justice system is still years away from being able to successfully try drug traffickers," says a US official in Bogota. He says Escobar's surrender has only begun another fight between government and cartel lawyers.

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