Colombia's Barco Leaves Nation With Mixed Legacy
President took hard line against drugs too late, some say
BOGOT'A, COLOMBIA — AS Colombian President Virgilio Barco Vargas prepares to leave office next week, he can bask in the light of international appreciation. In the eyes of many outside Colombia, Mr. Barco is the hero who launched the nation's frontal attack against cocaine traffickers after years of official neglect of the problem.
Many Colombians, however, view the outgoing president in a less favorable light. They say his administration has been a mediocre one despite gains against drug traffickers.
``Barco's image abroad is 1,000 times more impressive than it is inside the country,'' says Ana Maria Bejarano, a political scientist at Bogot'a's National University.
United States officials in Bogot'a offer nothing but praise for Barco. The latest results of the international narcotics battle are ``fantastic,'' says one US diplomat, adding that a large part of the credit belongs to Barco.
The official notes the price of coca leaf, used to make cocaine, is down while cocaine prices in the US are up, suggesting drug processing has been disrupted.
But Colombians' view the president's performance through a different lens, one that has been shattered by drug traffickers' violence. Police statistics show murders in Colombia growing during Barco's term from 15,137 in 1986 to 22,768 last year. Among those killed were three presidential candidates, 22 journalists, and 36 judicial officials.
``[Barco] has hit drug traffickers, but the country's violence has increased instead of diminished,'' says Antonis Su'arez, president of Colombia's judicial union. ``I would call that proof that the administration has been total failure.''
The Barco government intensified a crackdown on traffickers last August, ordering the seizure of properties belonging to suspected drug bosses and extraditions of trafficking suspects to the US.
Since then, the government has made unquestionable gains, especially against the giant cocaine cartel based in Medell'in. Authorities have seized traffickers' property worth millions of dollars, extradited 23 suspects, and killed one Medell'in cartel leader, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, in a gun fight. Security forces are seizing cocaine at an unprecedented rate - over 69,000 pounds so far this year. The figure exceeds the 1989 total amount of cocaine destroyed.
Though the government has still not captured the cartel's leader, Pablo Escobar, it has recently dealt the organization some serious blows. The cartel's military chief, John Jairo Arias, was killed in a June 13 gun battle with police. Security officials say the organization's infrastructure was further damaged by the recent capture of 18 suspected traffickers in the Central Magdalena River region.
Escobar and his underlings have responded to the pressure with bombings and assassinations that have left hundreds of Colombians dead.
Several analysts who find Barco indirectly responsible for the violence say he waited too long to act. They maintain that the administration was impassive for years while right-wing death squads, many of them financed by the traffickers, killed judges, journalists and leftists, especially members of the Patriotic Union (UP) party. Over 1,000 UP members have been assassinated since 1984.
``For three years, the UP and other groups were begging the government to do something about the paramilitary groups and the drug traffickers,'' Ms. Bejarano says. ``The government did nothing and finally paid the price.''
She and others view Barco's handling of the drug war as an exercise in crisis management. The president moved against drug traffickers only when he realized their power was rivaling that of the Colombian state, she says.
As the Bogot'a weekly Semana magazine puts it: ``At the beginning of the [Barco] government, drug traffickers were an independent power, practically acting parallel to the state. Now they are a power acting against the state and in retreat.''
Critics say Barco, focusing on the short-term fight against the Medell'in cartel, has failed to address chronic problems such as the deterioration of the Colombian justice system.
A backlog of more than 300,000 cases has led some Colombians to say official justice no longer exists in the country. ``This government has done nothing to improve the judicial system,'' says Mr. Su'arez, a Bogot'a judge. ``It has failed to recognize that the first state service must be the administration of justice.''
But the Barco administration had made clear strides in several vital areas, including peace talks with leftist guerrillas. Under Barco's peace plan, the April 19 Movement, or M19, became the first of the country's four major guerrilla groups to lay down arms and transform itself into a political party. Another group, the People's Liberation Army, is negotiating with government officials.
A Western diplomat says many Colombians do not recognize Barco's contribution to Colombian history. ``He decided to move against drug traffickers when he had the option to sit back and let them be. He has to be given credit for facing the problem at great political and personal risk.''