The sicarios, paid gunmen who make up Colombia’s private armies, use names such as Rambo, Terminator and Lovers of Medellín. But there is nothing lovable about them. Most are young men in their teens or early 20s with no salable skill other than killing. They charge as little as $50 a hit and work for a variety of masters. Unscrupulous businessmen employ them to kill off the competition. A jilted lover can hire a sicario to eliminate a rival. Right-wing politicians use them to assassinate leftist opponents. Cattle ranchers recruit them for so-called selfdefence groups, supposedly to combat rural guerrillas but often to evict peasant squatters or carry out land grabs. Since Colombia’s drug lords are also the country’s biggest land barons, they have bought the allegiance of the largest private armies. And they have provided
THE MEDELLIN CARTEL FIGHTS BACK AGAINST GOVERNMENT ASSAULTS ON ITS COCAINE EMPIRE
them with fearsome firepower—including machine-guns, bazookas and mortars.
Last week, the sicarios unleashed a reign of terror in Colombia as the notorious Medellin cartel fought back against government assaults on its cocaine empire. Eighteen bombings and a foiled rocket attack on a state-owned distillery forced the imposition of a nighttime curfew in the city of Medellin on Aug. 30. The U.S. Embassy in Bogotá announced the evacuation of all diplomatic dependants. Scores of judges resigned under death threats. Even in Washington, where Colombian Justice Minister Mónica de Greiff sought U.S. help, her security had to be upgraded when it was learned that she too was targeted for assassination (page 20). But the plucky, if inexperienced, 32-yearold woman said that she was not quitting her post. And she asked the United States for $22.6 million—on top of $76 million in emergency military aid already pledged by President George Bush—to help protect her country’s beleaguered judiciary. President Virgilio Barco also held firm, and one of Medellin’s most prominent crime families finally sued for peace. “No more drug trafficking, no more war, no more assassinations, no more bombs, no more arson,” Fabio Ochoa, whose three sons are on the U.S. most-wanted list, wrote in a letter to Barco. “Let’s sit down and talk.”
It was a startling offer, but one that had been _ made before. During a similar crackdown in Í 1984, the self-styled “Extraditables”—cartel 2 leaders whose extradition is sought by the ° United States—promised to destroy all their cocaine laboratories, dismantle their global
distribution network and repatriate their drug profits if the government allowed them to retire without fear of arrest. Two years later, they reportedly expanded the offer to include paying off Colombia’s $ 18-billion foreign debt. This time, the 70-year-old patriarch of the Ochoa family, who is not wanted himself, warned that his sons prefer “a grave in Colombia to a jail cell in the United States.” But Communications Minister Carlos Lemos said the cartel’s murderous record “does not justify this kind of dialogue.”
In the past five years, cartel gunmen have killed a justice minister, 57 judges, 25 journalists and more than 500 members of the leftist Patriotic Union. Lately, the drug lords threatened to kill 10 judges for every trafficker extradited to the United States. So far, no cartel kingpins have been apprehended in the “state of siege” Barco declared on Aug. 18 after the assassinations of a judge, a Medellin police commander and Luis Carlos Galán, the leading presidential candidate in elections next year. However, authorities are still holding about one-third of more than 11,000 suspects who were rounded up in military sweeps throughout the country, and the government has begun extradition proceedings against two mid-level cartel members. Both men, Eduardo Martínez and Abraham Majuat, are under U.S. indictment for money laundering. Colombian security forces also have seized billions of dollars in assets belonging to drug traffickers, including 346 aircraft, 464 ranches and homes, 1,313 vehicles and 4.5 tons of cocaine—about one per cent of Colombia’s annual production.
To help the undergunned army and police, the United States is sending arms, fighter jets,
T-37 spotter planes, Huey helicopter gunships, jeeps, armored personnel carriers and 50 to 100 military advisers. The first contingent arrived in Bogotá on Sept. 1. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, vacationing last week with Bush at Kennebunkport, Me., also promised Canadian assistance if asked by the Colombian government. And this week, Bush plans to unveil a broader “Andean Strategy,” costing $434 million, to fight cocaine production at its source in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.
Of the three countries, Colombia is the chief producer, supplying roughly 80 per cent of the global market. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that $357 billion is spent on illicit drugs in the world every year— more than one-third of that in the United States. Canadian consumption is nowhere nearly as high, but Canada has become a major transshipment point for Colombian drugs. In an impassioned appeal for support, Barco attempted to put moral pressure on the international community, saying, “Those of you who depend on cocaine have created the largest, most vicious criminal enterprise the world has known.”
Those in control of the multibillion-dollar trade are a loose collection of Colombian families who got together in Medellin’s La Margarita restaurant, owned by Jorge Luis Ochoa, on Nov. 12, 1981. That was the birth of the socalled cartel that later splintered into two factions—one from Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city, and the other from nearby Cali. Their vast wealth has corrupted municipal governments, the Colombian Congress and
large sectors of the army and police. Their power to intimidate or kill has paralysed the judicial system. Their only fear is extradition to the United States, where they cannot control the courts.
Although the Colombian government has declared war on drug traffickers three times in the past five years, the crackdowns never lasted long and only one kingpin, Carlos Lehder, was ever extradited to the United States. In 1987, Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled the extradition treaty unconstitutional, and it was only after Galán’s murder that Barco said he would reinstate it under emergency decrees. “It’s a question of political will,” said Robert Kurz, an expert on U.S.-Latin American relations and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It has never been a question of whether the Colombian military has the capacity to take on these people. They refused to do it.”
Yet, while drug traffickers have added a new and more violent chapter to Colombia’s bloodstained history, they have simply taken advantage of a situation that existed long before they arrived on the scene. Murder is the principal cause of death among Colombian males aged 15 to 44 and the second leading cause of death among all age groups. Medellin suffers a murder nearly every hour—up to 20 a day. Nationwide, the homicide rate now exceeds the peak years of “La Violencia,” the period between 1948 and 1958 when more than 200,000 people were killed in an undeclared civil war between the dominant Liberal and Conservative parties. That conflict spawned a Commu-
rust insurgency, which in turn led to the proliferation of right-wing death squads and paramilitary groups. In 1987, then-Defence Minister Rafael Samudio told Congress that Colombia had four main guerrilla groups with 15,000 men under arms and 138 private armies. He declared that a “demented society is leading the country to anarchy and chaos.”
Ironically, it was the authorities themselves who first encouraged the formation of vigilante groups in the mistaken belief that they would help restore law and order to what is essentially a lawless land. In 1987, the self-styled Cali Clean-up Squad, tacitly supported by the police, claimed credit for killing several hundred homosexuals, transvestites and petty criminals in the city before contracting its services to the
Cali drug cartel for a brutal turf war against the Medellin cartel. The latter employs the services of what was once an army-assisted paramilitary group called Death to Kidnappers. Better known by its Spanish acronym, MAS, it was formed in 1981 to protect isolated ranchers from guerrilla abductions in the northeast Magdalena Medio region.
Just as murder is a growth industry in Colombia, so too is protection. The climate of violence has attracted scores of private security consultants, counterinsurgency experts and adventurers—many of them veterans of such crack forces as Britain’s Special Air Services (SAS), the U.S. Green Berets or Navy Seals. Last week, the government identified five Israeli and 11 British mercenaries whom it ac-
cused of training hit squads for drug lords.
Israeli media charged that an Israeli firm called Hod Hahanit (Spearhead) was paid $952,000 to help train the Medellin cartel’s sicarios. And Britons were reportedly hired by the Cali cartel to kill Pablo Escobar, the socalled godfather of the rival Medellin cartel. Reports from London said that the British team was led by a safecracker-tumed-arms-dealer named David Tomkins and former SAS corporal Peter McAleese, who had been a mercenary in Angola, Rhodesia and South Africa before becoming a “security consultant.” On June 4, they staged a helicopter assault on Escobar’s heavily guarded estate, Hacienda Ñapóles, 130 km east of Medellin—but the attack failed when one of their two helicopters crashed.
Although they profess to be anti-leftist, the drug traffickers have, on occasion, formed alliances of convenience with Colombia’s guerrillas. In November, 1985, they contracted the M-19 group to seize the Palace of Justice in downtown Bogotá and destroy all documents related to pending extraditions. When the army counterattacked, 11 of the nation’s 24 Supreme Court justices were among those killed.
But it is the sicarios who do most of the cartel’s killing. Last January, they murdered 12 members of a judicial commission sent to investigate an earlier massacre in the Magdalena Valley. The commissioners were invited to lunch on the pretext of meeting informants, then lined up against a wall and machinegunned. Such ruthlessness has earned Colombia a reputation as the Lebanon of Latin America. And, as Barco himself pointed out, user countries such as the United States must first curb their own appetites for cocaine before they can hope to destroy its source.
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