THE Medellin cocaine cartel has opened a new chapter in the country's antidrug war, one that some Colombians believe could conclude with the words ``the end.'' A conditional offer by hundreds of cartel members to turn themselves over to authorities is stirring debate about whether the traffickers are serious about giving up the fight against the government.
In a letter to the government released last week, the cartel said it is willing to gather as many as 300 of its members in a high-security compound guarded by the Army or international human rights groups. In return, traffickers demand that the government protect their safety, prevent their extradition to the United States, and drop a demand that they confess their crimes.
Several Colombian officials and politicians are taking the cocaine bosses at their word. They say the cartel's offer may mark the beginning of the end to drug trafficking and the violence it spawns.
But skepticism among some Colombians and foreign officials is as great as the optimism of others. Many believe the traffickers' proposal is simply the latest in a series of ploys intended to draw the government into negotiations - and to win impunity.
The skeptics argue that although cartel members may intend to give themselves up, they will demand enough reciprocal concessions to turn the process into a farce.
``The danger is that the government is going to give drug traffickers such light treatment in return for their surrender that it will be the equivalent of a pardon called by another name,'' says Clara L'opez, a human rights activist and former Bogot'a city council president.
A statement by Justice Minister Jaime Giraldo Angel raised such concerns after the cartel's offer last Thursday. Mr. Giraldo said that drug suspects need only confess one of their crimes, rather than all of them, in order to receive a reduction of sentences and a guarantee of no extradition.
The announcement marked a drastic change in the government's position. Though President C'esar Gaviria Trujillo promised in September that surrendering traffickers would not be extradited, he indicated such leniency depended on a confession of all crimes.
Ms. L'opez, however, is among those who believe cartel members might confess a minor offense to receive lenient judicial treatment. The scenario is a chilling one, she says, because many drug suspects wanted abroad have no outstanding charges against them in Colombia. Also, traffickers' violence against judges has rendered the country's court system ineffective in gathering evidence, she says.
``They [the traffickers] could admit to carrying a pound of marijuana across the Venezuelan border while forgetting to mention that they also killed scores of political leaders, unionists, judges and journalists,'' L'opez says. ``Without proof, which is hard to come by in Colombia, they could walk away from serious offenses.''
Justice Minister Giraldo also announced that the government was considering letting surrendering cartel members serve multiple sentences concurrently, further reducing time behind bars.
L'opez and others see a potential disaster. ``The reason that justice is so important in these cases is because the peace Colombians yearn for depends on not forgetting what these criminals have done,'' she says.
In her opinion Gaviria would not allow such a cleaning of drug traffickers' slates. But a Western official says he is troubled by the president's recent concessions.
``Gaviria has made it clear that he wants to bring peace to Colombia,'' the official says. ``I just hope he doesn't mean peace at any price.''
For their part, the Medellin traffickers say they will not confess even one crime. In last week's letter to the government, the cartel demanded Gaviria drop his demand that they testify against themselves and their associates.
That, and other conditions for their surrender, leads some Colombians to speculate that the cartel is trying once again to lure the government to the negotiating table. In the second of last week's communiqu'es, the traffickers said they still consider themselves a political military group, not an organization of common criminals. The cartel previously has used such terminology to argue for forgiveness of past crimes.
Government officials still say that talks with the cartel are out of the question. But the Gaviria administration has made a number of recent moves to placate traffickers.
One such step involves the police, whom the cartel has frequently accused of killing and torturing drug suspects. The accusations have centered on Col. Oscar Pel'aez Carmona, chief of the country's investigative police.
Shortly after defending Colonel Pel'aez against the latest charge by traffickers, the government announced it had assigned him to the Colombian embassy in Washington. He is to leave Colombia in less than a month.
Despite such gestures, most Colombians agree that no official deal can be cut as long as the cartel is still holding hostages, including seven journalists.
Interior Minister Julio C'esar S'anchez said in a radio interview last week that he would reserve judgment on the cartel's offer until the hostages were freed. He stressed that Medellin traffickers should show their desire for peace with actions, not words.
Colombians seeking a settlement with the cartel say they are confident the hostages will be released soon. ``Within days,'' says Diego Montana Cuellar, former leader of the leftist Patriotic Union party and one of four Colombian leaders who have been negotiating privately with the cartel.
Mr. Montana says the cartel's leader, Pablo Escobar, kidnapped the journalists to use them as shields against the authorities' offensive against him. ``Now that he [Escobar] is planning to turn himself in, he no longer needs the hostages,'' Montana says. The new attitude, he says, means an end is at hand to the conflict between the cartel and the government.
Giraldo is equally optimistic. ``We believe we are on the threshold of a transcendental act to bring peace to Colombia,'' he said in a television interview following the cartel's offer.
Officials say the government is preparing high-security penal facilities to house even the most violent drug suspects.