Kings Jailed, but Colombia's Drugs Roll On

AS Jose Santacruz Londono sat openly in a steakhouse in Bogota last week, he must have thought it was the 1980s when drug-cartel kingpins could live freely in public life.

But Mr. Santacruz, the third-most-important leader of the Cali cartel, was in a time warp. Police officers had been stalking him for six months and arrested him in the restaurant before he had time to pay his bill.

As recently as a year ago the leaders of the Cali cartel, described by US officials as the most sophisticated criminal organization in the world, were swanning about in public with no fear of arrest.

But the hunt for the cartel chiefs, who supply 80 percent of the world's cocaine, was stepped up in February this year when the US government demanded more antidrug action from Colombian authorities.

In the last month, five of the top seven Cali drug lords were either captured or surrendered. The latest was Phanor Arizabaleta Arzayuz, No. 6 in the cartel hierarchy, who surrendered to the Colombian secret police Saturday.

Gone are the days of flamboyant mafia bosses who ruled over vast cocaine empires and bought their way into high society.

With most of the top Cali drug lords now behind bars, the reign of the kings of cocaine looks to be over.

But its death signals a change in business strategy for other drug dealers, rather than the end of drug trafficking in Colombia.

''The Cali cartel is like a snake. You kill it by a blow to the head,'' says Rosso Jose Serrano Cadena, chief of National Police, in an interview with the Monitor.

The first and biggest blow to the cartel came June 9 with the capture of its godfather, Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela. Following this came the surrender of three other lower-ranking bosses.

The last of the monolithic drug mafia, the Cali cartel, outlasted - and actually helped police to put under - the Medellin drug mafia.

The Medellin cartel was run by the infamous Pablo Escobar Gaviria, who dominated the drug industry, and much else in Colombia, through terror and intimidation. From the mid-1980s, he was effectively at war with the state, assassinating scores of judges, policemen, politicians, and journalists.

Escobar's decision to confront the state head-on was Medellin's downfall. The cartel dissolved after Escobar was killed in 1993 in a shootout with the police.

Many observers fear that the dispersal of drug dealers will make it more difficult for the authorities to stamp out drug trafficking in Colombia.

Experts say no single drug organization will take over from the Cali cartel.

''Recently the structure of these criminal groups looks less and less like that of a cartel - centralized organizations with a clear leader,'' says Dr. William Ramirez, professor of political science at Colombia National University in Bogota.

''To use the term cartel these days isn't very accurate,'' agrees Gabriel De Vega, head of the National Drugs Council in Bogota, which oversees government narcotics policy. ''The narcotics market is fairly compartmentalized and fragmented.''

Small, independent, low-key organizations have emerged, run by drug traffickers who have their own transport routes and production and refining facilities. The groups are free agents who ally in business deals, ''like legal companies,'' Dr. Ramirez says.

Police knowledge of these smaller groups is very sketchy. All that is known is they exist.

They are dispersed throughout the country on the Atlantic coast, in the states of Pereira, and Antioquia, of which Medellin is the capital.

Serrano admits there are a multitude of other drug dealers eager to fill the space left by the Cali cartel. But he says, ''The Cali cartel is the leader.... In a short time, you're going to see a recession here in drug dealing.''

Most other drug experts disagree. ''In the short-term, it will be a blow to the distribution network, but in the medium- and long-term, it's not going to have an effect,'' says Rodrigo Losada Lora, professor of political science at the Javeriana University in Bogota.

Dr. Losada predicts it will be six months to a year before the gaps in the market left by the Cali bosses will be filled by lower-ranking cartel members.

''The capture of a big boss doesn't in any way affect the market, and that's been proven,'' points out Ramirez, referring to cocaine mafia boss Escobar.

The Colombian authorities claim they are doing all they can to catch the drug traffickers and eradicate the country's estimated 165,000 acres of illegal crops.

''The drug problem is a jigsaw puzzle - the solution must be found in an integrated way, with all the pressure points applied at the same time,'' Mr. De Vega says.

Colombia could flush drug trafficking from its territory forever, he says. But the Colombian government says that unless there is an internationally integrated antidrug policy, the business will be merely displaced to nearby countries.

Since the crackdown in Colombia, much refining has been moved to Peru and Bolivia, and transportation to Central America and Venezuela.

Above all, Colombian authorities say, the United States must learn to control its insatiable desire for cocaine.

''You can't change the laws of supply and demand at the point of a gun,'' the Drugs Council's De Vega says.

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