Colombia Drug War Takes a Turn

Cartel appears to switch from bombing to kidnapping as government softens hard line

COLOMBIANS are debating whether drug traffickers here have resumed their campaign of terror after a two-month ``cease-fire'' or are trying lower-profile tactics to pressure the government. Authorities blame the cocaine cartel for recent abductions of seven journalists, including the daughter of a former Colombian president, as well as for the Sept. 25 killings of 19 people near the southern city of Cali.

``We have information that the Medell'in cartel has sent its terrorists to several major cities,'' says a police official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The traffickers ``are planning more kidnappings. They are threatening police and other institutions with new bombings. This war has definitely begun again.''

That view is rejected, however, by many Colombians, who say the cartel leaders are trying in their own twisted way to end the antidrug war, not escalate it.

``The cartel is using the kidnappings as a trial balloon to gauge the government's reaction, to see if it will quietly make concessions,'' says Enrique Santos Calder'on, a columnist at Bogot'a's El Tiempo newspaper and cousin of Francisco Santos Calder'on, the paper's abducted managing editor.

Medell'in drug bosses, he adds, have decided to use selective kidnappings rather than indiscriminate bombings to pressure the government. The cartel seems to realize, he says, that leaving the bodies of innocents to be filmed by television only strengthens the government's resolve.

Apparently part of its new, subtler campaign, armed men kidnapped Mr. Calder'on on Sept. 19 after killing his driver.

Several weeks earlier, a team of six journalists disappeared after leaving Bogot'a to interview leaders of the National Liberation Army, a Colombian leftist guerrilla group. The rebels later denied holding the journalists, led by Diana Turbay de Uribe, a Bogot'a magazine editor and daughter of former President Julio C'esar Turbay Ayala.

Officials in the administration of President C'esar Gaviria Trujillo did not acknowledge the cartel's responsibility for the kidnappings until Oct. 3. The belated reaction led some Colombians to speculate the government was negotiating with the cartel. Mr. Gaviria moved to silence rumors by reiterating that his government would not deal with traffickers.

But before the kidnappings, the president had offered surrendering drug suspects a trial in Colombia rather than extradition to the United States.

A caller to El Tiempo said no cartel members would surrender. But last week, Justice Minister Jaime Giraldo Angel said one figure was weighing the option.

Juan Tokatlian, a political scientist at Bogot'a's Los Andes University, says Pablo Escobar Gaviria, the cartel's leader, fears possible defections from the organization's ranks. Mr. Escobar, he speculates, may have ordered the kidnappings to reassert authority and pressure the government.

Mr. Tokatlian says traffickers' demands for a full amnesty is an extreme, but negotiable, position.

``Escobar may be looking simply for a greater government guarantee of his safety if he turns himself in,'' Tokatlian says. ``These hostages are his security while he searches for the modus operandi of the government's offer of reduced sentences.''

Many law enforcement officials agree with Tokatlian that Escobar cannot launch another big terrorist offensive like the one that killed 500 people between August 1989 and July, when the cartel declared its ``cease-fire.''

``[Escobar's] organization has been drastically weakened by the actions of Colombian security forces,'' says a US official.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the cartel is a spent force capable only of kidnapping journalists, authorities say. They blame Medell'in traffickers for the terrorist operation on Sept. 26 near Cali, the base of a rival group of drug traffickers.

The armed band that killed 19 people on a ranch near the city was searching for leaders of the Cali cartel, according to statements by police and Army officials. A war between the two drug trafficking groups for control of the New York City cocaine market has continued since 1988.

``The massacre near Cali shows that the Medell'in cartel is still capable of striking hard anywhere in the country,'' says a Western diplomat. The cartel is also said to be holding other Colombians, including the sister of Germ'an Montoya, the country's ambassador to Canada.

``The government will have to take more drastic action against traffickers to meet the new wave of terrorism,'' says the Colombian police source. But some analysts believe Gaviria may opt to offer more concessions to the cartel. They point out that traffickers hold members of some of Colombia's most influential families.

``One can never underestimate the influence of the Colombian ruling class on the president,'' the Western diplomat says.

Gaviria raised new suspicions of just such conciliation last Monday when he offered surrendering drug traffickers lighter judicial treatment. Suspects who confess to conspiracy charges or to possessing an illegal weapon will remain free while awaiting trial. Their property cannot be confiscated, and they cannot be extradited, even if a foreign government issues a new request after their surrender.

Before announcing the measures, Gaviria had reacted ambiguously to last week's offer by political and church leaders to ``exchange ideas'' between the government and the cartel. Although repeating he would give traffickers no quarter, the president called the mediation ``an eminently humanitarian gesture.''

The cartel used a kidnapping to draw the previous administration of President Virgilio Barco Vargas into such an exchange of ideas earlier this year. The abduction of the son of Germ'an Montoya, then Mr. Barco's closest adviser, forced the government to suspend extraditions of drug traffickers for months while establishing secret contacts with the cartel.

Extraditions eventually resumed after the kidnapping victim was released. But the Barco administration never recovered from the loss of credibility in the antidrug fight.

Both Colombian and foreign officials hope Gaviria, who is riding a wave of public support, will not fall into that trap.

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