A Battle Is Over, but the Drug War Goes On

Escobar's death will let Colombian officials focus on other, more sophisticated cartels

IN life, Pablo Escobar was the man who built cocaine trafficking into a global market. In death, he became the biggest trophy of the drug war.

But the flow of narcotics out of Colombia to markets in Europe and the United States probably will not diminish with his passing. More sophisticated cartels in other cities have already surpassed the scope of Escobar's operation.

And they have learned from the drug lord's mistakes. They eschew terrorism, the signature of Escobar's operation that spawned the international effort to capture him. Cocaine distribution has not been staunched. Heroin production is rising rapidly.

``I don't believe there's a major city in Colombia that doesn't have its cartel,'' says an official of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA believes that the cartel in Cali, for example, surpassed Medellin in drug exports more than a year ago.

Even so, Colombian officials express optimism that with their No. 1 drug menace gone, they will be able to curb the flow of drugs from other cartels.

Colombians argue that they have had more success than US law enforcement officials in capturing drug traffickers. Despite the immense corrupting power of drug money, and the intimidation and murder of hundreds of officers, Colombian police say they confiscate more than 66 tons of cocaine a year and arrest hundreds of suspects.

The Colombian legislature recently passed a new civil procedure code that offers lenient terms to traffickers who turn themselves in.

Escobar was killed Dec. 2 in a shootout in a middle-class neighborhood of Medellin, the center of operations for the cocaine cartel that he founded. On the lam since escaping from the custom-built La Catedral prison on July 22, 1992, he had been trying to negotiate a safe way back into jail.

Two thousand men pursued Escobar full-time since he shot his way out of La Catedral. In the process, police say, they captured 20 of his closest allies and killed 140 more. ``The Medellin cartel is totally debilitated,'' the national police said in a written statement.

Escobar was something of a folk hero. Ten years ago, he revived the legend of Robin Hood in Medellin, building homes for the poor and running for public office.

At the time of his death, Escobar faced 12 warrants for his arrest. He was responsible for killing at least a hundred people with 40 car bombs and murdering at least 215 police officers, according to officials. He is blamed for the 1990 downing of an Avianca jetliner that killed 107 passengers, and charged with the 1989 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan.

Escobar's terrorism served as a decoy for other traffickers. Soon after taking office in 1990, President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo declared the elimination of ``narcoterrorism'' to be the government's priority - more important even than drug trafficking.

Under this cover, the businesslike Cali cartel quietly went about taking over an estimated 80 percent of the cocaine trade. They also made Colombia the No. 3 exporter of heroin in the world, according to the DEA. The price of a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of heroin is about $250,000 in Miami.

With Escobar out of the way, members of the Cali cartel, lead by Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, now worry that the government will turn their sights on them.

The antidrug effort has lasted a decade and cost the US $32 billion. During that time, the street price, purity, and availability of cocaine has not diminished. Traffickers have expanded their networks to conquer the lucrative European market where wholesale prices are $30,000 per kilogram of cocaine, more than double the US price.

In a poor country such as Colombia, where a conservative oligarchy restricts upward mobility, drug trafficking is a way out of poverty. The profit potential is enormous. So long as that difference exists, someone will be willing to take the risk.

Impunity is the greatest ally of drug traffickers. Escobar severely weakened Colombia's justice system by bribing judges and killing the those he could not buy. Colombia will beef up its justice system now that Escobar can no longer assert his corruptive powers, says the head of Interpol in Colombia, Luis Guillermo Cano. Meanwhile, Mr. Cano says, drug traffickers will now be more upscale and less brutal.

``Today's traffickers will be more elitist,'' he says. ``Remember that Escobar came from nowhere. The traffickers of today will be more sophisticated. They know the law and the society and would not follow in Escobar's terrorist example.''

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