Colombians Worry About Narco-Terrorism's Return

The murder of the judge trying the nation's top cartel leader casts doubt on Colombia's anti-narcotics policy

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

EVEN as Colombian President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo defends his battered anti-narcotics policy during a visit to the United States, his government is facing the revived specter of drug terrorism at home.

Police are accusing Pablo Escobar of ordering the Sept. 18 killing of a judge in charge of trying the Medellin cartel leader in a 1986 murder case. Myriam Rocio Velez, one of Colombia's "invisible judges" whose identities are supposed to be secret, was shot dead along with three of her bodyguards just blocks from her home in southern Medellin.

Judicial officials say Velez was on the verge of convicting Mr. Escobar in the 1986 killing of Colombian newspaper publisher Guillermo Cano. Velez's murder raises doubts about Mr. Gaviria's system of trying to bring drug and terrorism suspects to justice by keeping judges' identities secret to protect them from reprisals.

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In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York Sept. 21, Gaviria defended his policy, blaming Velez's death on drug consumers in industrialized nations including the United States.

"Colombia is the victim of the uncontrollable appetite for drugs affecting the world," Gaviria said. "The bullets that killed the brave Judge Myriam Rocio Velez just three days ago were bought with money paid by consumers of cocaine."

But most analysts agree that Velez's murder gives evidence that Gaviria's policy is in serious trouble. It does more than show that traffickers can breech a sophisticated system of mirrors, voice distorters, and other security measures meant to protect judges. The killing also raises the terrifying possibility of a return to the dark days before Gaviria managed to "pacify" drug traffickers by offering them concessions.

Escobar surrendered last year but escaped in July when the government, acting on evidence that he was continuing to run his drug business, tried to transfer him out of a luxury prison near Medellin. Now many Colombians say they are terrified he is planning to use violence to try to force the Gaviria administration into another round of negotiations.

Notes Bogots "Semana" magazine in a story entitled "The Terror Returned": "At this moment what most worries Colombians from the president down is not only this bloody blow to justice, but what the Sept. 18 murders mean to many: the return of those dark days of terror that the country lived through in 1989 and 1990."

Authorities then were blaming Escobar for a series of bombing attacks and other terrorism that left hundreds dead. For Col. Daniel Peralta, the chief of Medells police force, the Velez murder was more of the same. In a weekend interview on local radio, Colonel Peralta said Escobar's responsibility for the judge's murder was "indisputable."

The murder was even more shocking because it comes amid mounting speculation that Escobar is planning to turn himself in again. Colombians who carefully watched events leading to the drug boss's first surrender have seen many of the same signals repeated in recent days.

Rafael Garcia Herreros, the 83-year-old Roman Catholic priest who helped bring Escobar in the first time, has again been making cryptic references to "Don Pablo's" desire for a peaceful solution to his conflict with the government. Asked in an interview if Escobar was again planning to give himself up, Fr. Garcia Herreros closed his eyes and whispered, "The country is going to receive a surprise in a few days."

On Sept. 15, Jorge Eduardo Avendano, who had broken out of jail with Escobar, walked into a Medellin jail. The move was reminiscent of last year's surrenders of several Escobar underlings, which preceded their boss's surrender.

Gaviria and his staff still refuse to admit publicly that Velez's murder has diminished the possibility of Escobar's reappearance before authorities.

"I believe like all Colombians that this criminal and others will submit themselves again to Colombian justice," Gaviria said in New York. "The intense search being carried out by our authorities will produce either the capture or the surrender of Pablo Escobar."

But other officials say privately that Escobar never had any intention of surrendering. Instead, they say, he simply may be preparing the ground for a new campaign of kidnappings and attacks against police and other state officials.

Escobar is building expectations of his surrender, this argument runs, in order later to blame the government for blocking it by refusing to negotiate. He has once again demanded that he be able to choose the site of his incarceration and be given guarantees that he will not be transferred.

A number of factors are preventing the government from granting the demands as it did in 1991, officials say. Chief among them is the unrelenting criticism of Gaviria for negotiating with Escobar in the first place.

"We no longer have any political margin for any kind of concessions, and Escobar knows that," says one of the president's closest advisers, adding that this time, Escobar would be placed in a true maximum security prison currently in its final stages of construction in the Medellin suburb of Itagui.

"Escobar will not surrender unless he is sure that he, and he alone, will oversee security at the jail," he says. "We've made it very clear that the state will make the security decisions."

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