It is, according to Colombian Defence Minister Fernando Botero, a straightforward, if not simple, mission: to “disrupt, dismantle and destroy” the so-called Cali cartel, a band of wily Colombian drug traffickers who earned an estimated $10.7 billion last year by controlling 80 per cent of the world’s cocaine trade. In recent months, the Colombian government has unleashed an elite task force, now numbering some 9,000 police officers and soldiers, to raid the homes and headquarters of cartel leaders. It has also flooded the nation’s airwaves with offers of lucrative rewards for information leading to arrests, while promising lighter jail sentences to drug traffickers who surrender before they are captured. The crackdown has scored some stunning successes, including the June 9 arrest of Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, one of two brothers who headed the cartel. But it also triggered an alarming round of violence, most notably the explosion of a five-kilogram home-made bomb in Medellin the day after Rodriguez’s arrest, which killed 29 people and injured more than 200 others gathered in a downtown park for a weekend music festival.
The recent bloodshed—which authorities blame on
urban militia groups working at the behest of drug traffickers—has also included a bombing at the national legislature in Bogotá and the assassination of at least two high-ranking police officers. For many Colombians, such attacks have revived memories of the bad old days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the widely feared Medellin cartel, under the leadership of the notorious Pablo Escobar, waged a reign of terror. Openly challenging the authority of the Colombian government, the Medellin cartel blew up a civilian airliner with more than 100 passengers aboard; murdered more than 200 judges and 1,000 police officers; and assassinated an attorney general, a justice minister and three presidential candidates.
The campaign of violence finally ended in December, 1993, when Escobar died in a fusillade of army machine-gun fire in Medellin following an 18-month manhunt.
Escobar’s death may have crippled his cartel, but it barely caused a ripple in the flow of illegal drugs from Colombia. Instead, his longtime rivals from Cali, 350 km southwest of Medellin, stepped into the breach. Led by the Rodriguez brothers, the Cali cartel struggled to put a more civilized veneer on a cutthroat trade. They used their drug profits to infiltrate and influence the government rather than terrorize it. (Colombia’s prosecutor general is currently investigating charges that the Cali cartel paid bribes to, among others, the country’s attorney general, the president of the house of representatives and 14 other members of congress.) The new drug lords also plowed money into a host of legitimate sidelines and philanthropic causes. Cocaine profits, in fact, have been used to restore churches, build medical clinics and even bankroll the
construction of neighborhood police posts to help reduce street crime.
For all of that, the Cali kingpins can be every bit as brutal as their Medellin counterparts. Among those who surrendered to police last month was Henry Loaiza Ceballos, who is accused of overseeing the cartel’s military operations. In the Cauca River area north of Cali, Loaiza is renowned for sponsoring music concerts, beauty contests and an annual patron saint festival. Nicknamed “The Scorpion,” he is also widely feared as the man who, in 1990, oversaw the torture and killing of more than 100 peasants after they tried to form a union. As a warning to others, Loaiza, who owned a ranch in the area, allegedly directed that the bodies of the suspected unionists be cut up with chainsaws and dumped in the Cauca River.
Colombia’s crackdown on the Cali cartel followed intense pressure from the United States government, which threatened in March to impose trade sanctions and cut off economic aid if the drug barons were not brought to justice. But despite the recent flurry of activity, American officials remain muted in their praise of the Colombian initiatives—in part because of long-standing suspicions that the tentacles of corruption reach into the most senior levels of the country’s government. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gelbard recently described the arrests of the drug lords as an “excellent start,” but told reporters that Washington would be watching closely to see that those convicted receive stiff jail terms, forfeit their ill-gotten assets and are sent to “real prisons”—the latter a pointed reference to the farcical incarceration of Escobar in the early 1990s in a custom-built facility replete with a king-size bed, private bath and Jacuzzi.
There are also doubts that the war against the Cali cartel will do much to impede the international flow of illegal drugs—including the 7,000 tons of cocaine, with a street value of about $250 million, that the RCMP seized in Canada in 1994. Most of that cocaine comes from Colombia. But Angus Smith, an analyst with the RCMP’s criminal intelligence branch in Ottawa, says that even if the Cali cartel is broken, other groups—both in Colombia and countries such as Peru, Brazil and Bolivia—will fill the void. “The cocaine cartels are hydraheaded,” adds Smith. “You cut off one head and another head grows back very quickly.” For anyone looking for a quick victory in the drug wars, it is a sobering analysis.
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