Colombia's losing war with drug kings. After four bloody years, officials ask if it's time to talk, not fight

Weary Colombia is groping for a way out of its losing war with drug traffickers. President Virgilio Barco Vargas puts up a firm front against the traffickers, but privately Cabinet ministers say that the government has little hope of defeating the rich and ruthless drug lords of what is known as the Medell'in cocaine cartel.

Former President Belisario Betancur Cuartas has described their underground empire as ``an organization stronger than the state.''

Among Colombians there is a growing fear of both cocaine kings and cocaine addiction, which has reached epidemic levels in the country's major cities.

There was a time when Colombia's marijuana millionaires and cocaine billionaires were considered something of a national resource.

The Central Bank repatriated their illicit earnings with no questions asked. Traffickers threw jet-set parties in the fanciest hotels, bought the best soccer teams, built public housing, handed out money to the poor, and entered openly into politics as civic-minded Sugar Daddies.

But when gunmen linked to cocaine king Pablo Escobar Gaviria shot down Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla on April 30, 1984 for supporting an extradition treaty with the United States, Colombians learned that easy money had a high price.

The justice minister's assassination not only cut off the drug traffickers from high society, but it also touched off a bloody war with the government.

In four years of fighting, government forces have suffered the heaviest casualties.

An attorney general, at least 21 judges, the security chief of the national airlines, a National Police colonel, as well as scores of rank-and-file policemen and soldiers have been slain. Journalists and politicians who denounced traffickers have also been murdered.

There is little to show for these losses. A spectacular three-week government offensive that began at the end of December 1986 and involved more than 1,300 raids producing hundreds of arrests came up with only three alleged traffickers out of 72 sought by the United States. None of those jailed were major cartel figures. Their capture simply allowed subordinates to move up. ``Despite the government offensive, the drug-trafficking structure remains intact,'' a headline from the newsmagazine Semana read.

Police and press reports say in 1987 authorities dismantled between 400 and 600 cocaine laboratories, seized a million gallons of drug-processing chemicals, and destroyed 1 tons of coke. Nevertheless, the cartel produced an estimated 75 to 80 tons of cocaine - one of its better years.

Last month, the government launched a major campaign to capture the ``big five'' drug traffickers. Although the Army offensive - ``Operation Crucible'' - found two big cocaine-processing complexes, raided dozens of hideouts, destroyed seven laboratories, and confiscated more than 4 tons of cocaine, it did not succeed in catching any top traffickers.

The Medell'in cartel, a vertically integrated conglomerate buys coca leaf paste from peasants in Colombia, Boliva, and Peru. It then processes the paste into cocaine, which is sold to wholesalers in the US and Europe. Estimates on earnings range from $4 to $10 billion annually.

There are as many as 500,000 people - out of a population of 30 million - involved in Colombia's drug trade, says US political scientist Richard Craig, a drug trade specialist.

Although US attention focuses on the half-dozen billionaires at the top, there are ``at least 1,000 narcotraficantes with $15 million to $200 million'' in assets, according to one of Colombia's foremost drug experts, who requested anonymity.

This war chest gives the cartel an enormous advantage over the underfunded government forces.

The government says it spends $2.5 billion annually in fighting drugs, but many of its policemen still carry 40-year-old M-1 carbines. They must confront trigger-happy narco-armies recruited from the urban underclass and equipped with automatic weapons.

Perhaps the most powerful weapon of the traffickers is corruption. Underpaid policemen and judges are often forced to choose between the bullets and the bribes of the traffickers. In the past year, the government has been forced to fire dozens of policemen in Medell'in, the cartel's capital. Six Medell'in judges resigned in September, after one of them was linked to a band of paid killers working for cartel kingpins.

Colombia's judiciary ``is virtually paralyzed,'' states the US State Department's 1988 report on world drug production.

Enrique Santos Calder'on, deputy editor of the influential daily, El Tiempo, says the struggle against the cartel ``threatens to ruin us materially and morally.''

Washington is trying to revive flagging spirits in Bogot'a with its suggestion of organizing a multinational police force to attack drug trafficking. In April, US Attorney General Edwin Meese III presented the multinational force plan to President Barco during a Latin American tour. Bolivia has rejected the idea, but the Barco government has yet to respond.

A Western diplomat says Mr. Meese initially proposed sending ground troops, but ``the reaction was so negative that the US backed off.''

Exhausted by its bloody battle with the traffickers, the government is eager for international allies. Mr. Barco has asked the UN for $30 million to computerize court data and improve crime laboratories.

The President talks tough about drugs. Since taking office two years ago, Barco has issued a dozen antidrug decrees ranging from tighter controls on helicopter flights - a favorite means of transport for cartel kingpins - to the establishment of rewards for information leading to traffickers' arrests.

After traffickers murdered Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos in January, Barco decreed an antiterrorist law to strengthen his hand in the struggle against the drug lords. He sent the Army, rather than the police, into Medell'in streets, raising fears that contact with the cartel would spread drug corruption into the military.

There is a growing sentiment among national leaders here that Colombia should talk, not fight. In February, two leading Roman Catholic bishops called for a dialogue between the government and the traffickers to end the bloodshed. There has also been discussion here about legalizing cocaine. Many think legalization would help reduce production and profits. Former acting attorney general, Alfredo Guti'errez M'arquez, who resigned in March, advocated both dialogue and legalizing drugs.

The cartel has made it brutally clear what it would demand in such negotiations: an ironclad promise not to extradite them to the US. Traffickers have killed many officials involved in sending their colleagues to US jails.

Second in a four-part series. Next: Roots of violence.

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