US-Style Tactic to Hit Narcos in Wallet Puts Colombia on Guard

The team of government attorneys had just seized 350 kilos of cocaine, several four-wheel-drive vehicles, and an entire farm in San Carlos, southeast of Bogot. An hour into the trip home, under the protection of two dozen soldiers, the caravan was ripped apart by grenades, assault rifles, and rocket fire.

"We're not shock troops. We hadn't expected such an attack - especially such a large group," says Pablo Gonzales, director of the Attorney General's Technical Investigation Corps (CTI).

Eleven members of the 40-man team were killed in the Oct. 3 attack, which has given pause to antidrug forces. They were implementing a law, passed last year under United States pressure, that would allow the seizure of drug dealers' assets.

The actual seizure of billions of dollars in goods is just getting under way, and it is putting the government in a bind.

"The Colombian state has declared war on illicit property," said President Ernesto Samper recently, announcing that the government had started processing 35 cases worth about $650 million.

It may be a "war" in a more literal sense. Many drug traffickers are in league with right-wing paramilitary armies. The state usually leaves the paramilitaries alone as both fight their common enemy - Colombia's leftist guerrillas. But the asset-forfeiture operations may finally bring the tacit allies into violent confrontation.

The right-wing armies number about 5,000. They call themselves "self-defense groups" who protect civilians against guerrillas. But investigation has revealed that it is usually large landowners and drug-traffickers who the "paras" are protecting. The paras carry high-tech weapons and have the capacity to move troops by air.

Powerful paramilitary leader Carlos Castao denies any drug links and denounced the attack in San Carlos, vowing to find the perpetrators. But Mr. Gonzales remains skeptical: "It's a political play. They want to make us think that not all the paras are linked to drugs. But how are they being financed, if not by narco-trafficking?"

On his visit to Colombia last month, US drug czar Gen. Barry MacCaffrey urged Mr. Samper to combat the private armies, saying: "They're no more than bands of criminals who profit from narco-trafficking and endanger Colombian democracy."

Armed conflict is not the only hurdle that the asset-forfeiture law has to clear, says Francisco Giraldo, head of the political science department at Bogot's Javieriana University.

The law was designed with the aim of spending the money seized for education, public health, youth programs, housing, land redistribution, and antidrug efforts.

"It's like a wish-list of where the money is supposed to go," says Mr. Giraldo. Because the legal process is slow, it remains to be seen where the money will end up. "I'm worried about what's going to happen while the money is being assigned," says Giraldo. "Many of these public figures use the funds of the state like it was their own money."

Corruption has been a persistent problem in Colombian government, especially because of the vast sums of money brought in by drug sales.

Furthermore, once the property has been confiscated and reallocated, it may be difficult to persuade private citizens to buy it. Even though many of Colombia's drug bosses are in jail, they are still thought to have great influence in the country. Persuading anyone to move into a former drug-trafficker's farm may be difficult.

Gonzales is convinced that, despite the obstacles, the asset-forfeiture law will work. "Taking away the goods is what hurts the narcos most," he says. "If the state decides to do it, it's possible. Here in the CTI, we have the will."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.