The capture of Carlos Lehder Rivas will not stop cocaine smuggling from Colombia, but it has broken the top traffickers' protective myth of invincibility and restored some badly needed confidence in the authorities. Justice Minister Eduardo Suesc'un describes the Lehder arrest as ``an especially important blow'' and agrees that its main significance is psychological: ``It gives us more faith in the Colombian justice system.''
There are now nine other ``significant'' traffickers in Colombian jails who are wanted for extradition to the US. One of them, Alvaro Donado Su'arez, picked up just two days after the Lehder raid, is accused of running as much as half a ton of cocaine at a time into the southern US. Mr. Donado faces trial on at least four counts in a Palm Beach, Fla., court.
These extraditions, however, will not be as rapid as that of Lehder, whose extradition papers had long been signed and ready to go. And there is now a mysterious lull here in activities of both traffickers and law enforcement officers. It may be that the authorities are waiting for the traffickers, who are laying low, to make a move.
The authorities have stepped up protection for the courts and judges in anticipation of reprisals, and the already tight security around the US Embassy has been intensified.
Lehder's capture is the direct result of the December murder of newspaper editor Guillermo Cano. That assassination stirred public opinion and shook the government into action, triggering, as part of its offensive, a purge of corrupt police protecting the top traffickers.
Mr. Cano had singled out Lehder in the daily El Espectador as one of the most destructive influences in the country and editorialized in support of the extradition treaty. Lehder had founded his own political party and newspaper largely dedicated to campaigning against the treaty under the slogan, ``extradition is treason.'' It is being suggested here that Lehder was responsible for arranging Cano's murder.
Over the last 10 years, Lehder allegedly helped smuggle dozens of tons of cocaine into the US; supplied aircraft, weapons, communications, warehouses, and manpower to other traffickers; and, with his massive profits, did more than any other criminal to corrupt, demoralize, and terrorize this country.
Despite his love of fascism and reputed role in a number of killings, he cultivated the image of a maligned Robin Hood, struggling for the good of his nation against foreign intervention. Even when forced underground in 1984 after the assassination of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, he kept popping up to thumb his nose at the law, holding clandestine press conferences and playing hide and seek with government forces.
He escaped an earlier raid so narrowly that he left behind a suitcase containing $1.6 million - and then asked for the return of $1.8 million, accusing the police of stealing the difference.
This cheeky ability to defy and discredit the authorities gave him a hero's status to many. This perhaps made him more dangerous as a political force than as a trafficker. It also earned the anger of his colleagues, who prefer a low profile to shield the drug business. One widespread rumor suggests the tipoff leading to his capture came from associates wanting to get rid of an embarrassment.
The son of a hard-working German immigrant, Lehder provided the intelligence and shrewdness that, in the late 1970s, welded different Colombian smuggling groups into an efficient, ruthless, and successful machine. He had learned early - serving a two-year term in the US for possession of 90 pounds of marijuana - that small-scale operations were not worth the effort. He built an air force capable of flying 5,000 pounds of cocaine a month across the Caribbean into the southern US.
Evidence to be presented at his trial is expected to show that he bought help from Cuba and Nicaragua, running 1 tons of cocaine through Managua in mid-1984. He allegedly paid military authorities for the right to fly through Cuban airspace, paying ``taxes'' according to the volume and value of the drugs in transit.
Despite his professed allegiance to Nazism, Lehder developed a strange alliance with leftists, from Colombian guerrillas to Libya.
In 1979, guerrilla groups turned to snatching drug millionaires for ransom because of their vast available cash reserve and their inability to turn to the law for help. When Lehder was wounded in a kidnap attempt by the M-19 guerrillas, he sent his men out after the kidnappers. One guerrilla was brought in, according to Lehder legendry, to be greeted by the bandaged-up drug king, who, sighting along a pistol barrel, said, ``I just wanted to say goodbye to you,'' before he fired.
The drug exporters formed an organization - Muerte a Secuestradores (Death to Kidnappers) - to protect themselves, which they announced in pamphlets dropped over cities from light aircraft. The traffickers and the rebels fought a vicious, brief war of ambush and assassination before agreeing on a cease-fire and then a partnership. Evidence found in several cocaine factories raided in the southern jungles in 1983 showed they were guarded by guerrilla squads, and Lehder announced in his last television interview that he was joining the fight against ``Yankee imperialism.'' According to intelligence sources, he made two trips to Libya to arrange arms shipments.
If the campaign against the traffickers stops with Lehder, nothing much will have changed. But it may yet sweep up the other top cartel leaders - the Ochoa brothers and Pablo Escobar - or it may force them out of the country. They will not give up easily or peacefully, but at last the Colombian government appears ready to do serious battle.