Thousands of soldiers combed the quiet, sunbaked streets of Cartagena while a fleet of warships patrolled offshore, frogmen searched for mines and jet fighters roared overhead. In the midst of one of the biggest security operations ever mounted in Colombia, President George Bush arrived in the Caribbean seaport on Feb. 15 aboard a Marine Corps helicopter. There, at a 17thcentury fortress on the grounds of the Colombian naval academy, he met the presidents of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, the countries that produce most of the world’s cocaine, for talks on antidrug measures. “The president of the most powerful country in the world is going into the lion’s den,” said a veteran U.S. drug agent. “He’s taking a hell of a chance for something he believes in.”
The heavy security stemmed from concerns that Colombia’s notorious cocaine cartels or leftist rebels may attack the President. And such possibilities were underscored last week
when a pro-Cuban Colombian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, kidnapped three Americans and issued a statement declaring that “every U.S. interest in Colombia” was a military target. But the summit itself went off without unseemly incident. After three hours of talks, Bush and presidents Virgilio Barco of Colombia, Alan Garcia of Peru and Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia signed the Declaration of Cartagena, which outlines the leaders’ battle plans for a united fight against the drug trade. And, almost 10 hours after he arrived, Bush was safely on his way back to Washington.
U.S. officials said that Bush overrode security concerns to attend the summit, called by the Andean leaders last September, in order to show support for Barco, whose country has been in a state of near war since he announced a crackdown on Colombia’s cocaine barons last August. And in Cartagena, Bush broke new ground by acknowledging that the United States, where an estimated 1.45 million users
spend $120 billion each year on illegal drugs, must accept some responsibility. “I owe it to the children of America,” said Bush, “and to these three presidents, to guarantee them that we will do everything we can to cut demand for narcotics in the United States.” For his part, Barco said that the summit marked “the dawn of a new era against drugs.”
But those symbolic gestures aside, critics said that Bush had offered little substantial aid to help the three Andean countries finance the war on drugs or to cushion the blow on their fragile economies if the lucrative cocaine trade were to end. Bush promised Barco that he would seek expanded U.S. markets for Colombian products, including cut flowers and coffee, but offered no specifics on how he would accomplish that goal. Similarly, he promised to promote private investment in the Andean countries and offered to help control the export of U.S.-made weapons and chemicals used in cocaine production, but left the details of those agreements to future bilateral negotiations.
At the same time, the four presidents’ final statement committed Bush to ask Congress for increased economic aid for the drug-producing nations. But U.S. officials said that the commitment referred to the $508-million aid package for 1991, up from $260 million this year, that Bush has already sent to Congress for approval. The three Latin American presidents, who were seeking more than $1 billion each per year, clearly left the meeting without the massive support that they had been seeking.
As well, Bush had to counter lingering resentment over the U.S. invasion of Panama, Colombia’s neighbor, in December. In what was clearly an effort to reassure the Latin Americans, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater announced last week that only 13,504 U.S. servicemen remained in Panama, down from 27,000 at the peak of the operation. And in Cartagena, Bush did not suggest send-
ing warships to the Caribbean to track suspected drug-smuggling aircraft.
Bush acknowledged that the Andean countries were making progress in their battle against drug producers—and that they have paid a heavy price. Last August, after Barco announced plans to extradite drug traffickers wanted in the United States, a group calling itself “The Extraditables,” with links to the
country’s Medellin cocaine cartel, launched more than 200 bomb attacks that killed at least 200 Colombians. Still, Colombian authorities sent 17 suspected traffickers to the United States for trial since the crackdown began. And in mid-December, police killed suspected Medellin kingpin José Rodriguéz Gacha in a shootout 105 km southwest of Cartagena.
Those efforts apparently convinced the drug traffickers to sue for peace. On Jan. 17, the Extraditables issued a statement pledging to abandon their bloody attacks and stop their cocaine trafficking if the government offered unspecified “legal guarantees”—clearly a demand that they be allowed to enjoy their illicit profits without harassment. Drug-related terrorist attacks have almost ceased since the peace offer. And last week, the Extraditables handed over to the government three cocaineprocessing laboratories in a northern jungle.
But Colombian officials said that the laboratories had not been used in some time. And Barco has said it would be immoral to negotiate with drug traffickers who have killed so many Colombians. Indeed, despite the drug barons’ initiatives, U.S. officials said that there appears to have been no decrease in the amount of cocaine available in the United States. Clearly, last week’s summit was a relatively small step towards the elimination of the deadly scourge of drugs.
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