Pubdate: Sun, 14 Jan 2001
Source: Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
Copyright: 2001 The Sun-Times Co.
Contact:  401 N. Wabash, Chicago IL 60611
Author: Dan Gardner, Ottawa Citizen. See Gardner's outstanding "Losing the
War on Drugs" series from the Citizen at:


BOGOTA--They are dark memories now, but in the 1980s and early 1990s,
Colombia's drug lords loomed large in North American nightmares.

Pablo Escobar, the ruthless chief of the Medellin cartel, was the most
infamous of all, the personification of the cocaine plague.

In 1989, pressed by Colombian authorities, Escobar declared "total and
absolute war," then launched an unprecedented campaign of terror. The
Colombian government responded with its own brutal force. For the first
time, the War on Drugs became a literal war.

Ultimately, with much bloodshed and sacrifice, Colombia defeated Escobar.
Then the other great Colombian trafficking ring, the Cali cartel, was taken
down. These were the War on Drugs' greatest victories. Yet today, just a few
years after these triumphs, Colombia is suffering political turmoil,
economic free-fall, epidemic violence and massive corruption, all while
producing and shipping more drugs than Escobar could have imagined in his
greediest dreams.

Victory over the cartels did not stop the illegal trafficking of drugs. Nor
did it stop the corruption and violence drug trafficking breeds. It only
made these plagues worse.

For Colombians, this recent, bitter history foreshadows the future. With the
backing of the United States (President Clinton traveled to Colombia
recently to formally deliver a massive aid package), Colombia is preparing a
new anti-drug assault. The details have changed but not the essential
approach: Once again, the illegal drug trade will be fought with police,
soldiers and helicopters.

Once again, the War on Drugs will become a literal war. Lawyer Monica de
Greiff shakes her head with disgust when she talks of this looming war. She
is in private practice in Bogota now, but her memories of the last war are

In 1989, de Greiff was vice minister of justice in Colombia. Escobar had
ordered the murder of a leading presidential candidate, prompting Colombia's
president, Virgilio Barco, to announce a crackdown on traffickers and the
extradition of the worst of them to the United States.

The drug lords were enraged. Barco made de Greiff his minister of justice.
The next day, Escobar launched a terror campaign to stop the extraditions.
Life for de Greiff became "like hell," she says.

The death threats started immediately. There were blunt phone calls and
notes. Funeral arrangements arrived expressing condolences for her passing.

A headless doll was delivered to her inside a tiny coffin inscribed with the
name of her 3-year-old son. Meanwhile, Escobar launched a wave of maniacal
assaults: A bus packed with 1,100 pounds of dynamite exploded in front of
the headquarters of the Colombian federal police, killing 80 people and
injuring 700; the editor of a muckraking newspaper was murdered; a truck
bomb later destroyed the newspaper's offices; judges and police officers,
with rich bounties on their heads, were murdered by the score; car bombs
maimed shoppers and street merchants; a bomb aboard a commercial airliner
knocked the plane from the sky, killing 107 people.

For de Greiff, life was a state of siege. Soldiers blocked off the street in
front of her house. Her little boy went to school surrounded by guards and
machineguns. She traveled in a bombproof car, though with Escobar's
well-known desire to kill her, it was rarely possible to go anywhere.

"People were so scared that if I went shopping or to a restaurant, they
would get up and leave," she says. The government answered Escobar, attack
for attack.

There were massive seizures of drug cartel property. In sweeping
investigations, as many as 10,000 people were detained for questioning.
State security forces took emergency legislation as a license for ferocity,
committing summary executions of suspects and murders wholly unrelated to
the war with Escobar.

In 1989, 5,700 people died in politically related murders, 70 percent of
these committed by the army or police.

Amid this chaos, Monica de Greiff lasted nine months. One day, an anonymous
caller described to her precisely where her son went to school, how he got
there, what time he arrived and when he left. She resigned and fled to Miami
with her family. Escobar and his henchmen never were extradited. But over
the next several years, the Colombian government dismantled the Medellin

In 1993, Escobar was shot dead. One of the key men responsible for taking
down Escobar was de Greiff's father, Gustavo. As Colombia's prosecutor
general, he was a frontline commander in the War on Drugs. And thanks to his
role in the sensational manhunt, he also was a hero in the United States.

While Escobar was still on the run, American television journalist Sam
Donaldson interviewed Gustavo de Greiff in Colombia. If Escobar is
imprisoned or killed, Donaldson asked, what effect will it have on the drug
trade in Colombia? Gustavo de Greiff startled the American with his answer:
"Mr. Donaldson, nothing will happen. There is so much appetite in your
country for drugs, the killing of Escobar will not be a solution."

Gustavo de Greiff was beginning to doubt that the illegal drug trade could
be crippled by going after drug lords. As long as the demand existed, there
would be huge profits to be had, and people prepared to risk prison or death
to get them. The carnage and destruction in Colombia, he suspected, were
pointless. As it turned out, de Greiff was not quite right in saying that
nothing would happen to the drug trade. Illegal drug exports did change
after the death of Escobar: They rose.

Escobar's rivals, the Cali cartel, had been instrumental in the destruction
of the Medellin cartel, supplying the government with intelligence and
taking out Medellin gunmen with their own assassins.

Once the competition was in jail or dead, the Cali drug lords cashed in.
Cocaine shipments to the United States outpaced demand. The price of cocaine
in the United States actually fell in the years after Escobar's death. The
Cali cartel became flush with money and power.

Colombia's first victory in the War on Drugs had produced only more drugs,
more corruption and more power for organized crime. Just how bad things had
become was confirmed in the 1994 Colombian presidential election, when
evidence surfaced that the campaign of the winner, Ernesto Samper, had been
financed in part by the Cali cartel. Where Escobar had tried to destroy the
state, the Cali cartel threatened to buy it.

The United States responded by decertifying the Samper government--issuing a
formal reprimand for not doing enough to fight drug trafficking. The
Americans threatened economic sanctions and an end to financial aid.
Colombia's economy had only just been opened to international trade and
investment, and with 40 percent of the country's exports going to the United
States, economic sanctions would have been devastating.

The Samper government, desperate to improve relations with the United
States, attacked the Cali cartel with a vengeance. By 1996, all of the Cali
drug lords were either in prison or dead. Still, the Clinton administration
refused to give its blessing to the Colombian government, and Samper left
office under a cloud of allegations of corruption.

With the destruction of the Cali cartel, the War on Drugs had won its second
triumph. But the cost was terrible. Between 1985 and 1995, 3,400 Colombians
died and another 5,000 were wounded in the fight with the drug lords,
including civilians caught in the crossfire.

Meanwhile, an even more fundamental change was taking place, helped along by
the fight with the old cartels. Until the 1990s, Colombia grew very little
coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived. Instead, Colombian cartels
obtained coca base--unrefined cocaine--from Peru and Bolivia. They then
processed it into cocaine and shipped it to the United States, Canada and

Beginning in 1992, the planting of coca expanded rapidly in Colombia. In
1995, it took off. Over the next five years, the amount of coca grown in
Colombia doubled.

The U.S. government estimates that coca now covers about 50,000 acres of the
country, making Colombia the single largest source of coca in the world.
Combined with the coca brought into the country to be processed, Colombia
now exports three-quarters of the world's cocaine.

Even more dramatic was the shift to opium poppy, the plant from which heroin
is derived. Before the 1990s, opium poppy was little-known in Colombia. Now
it covers about 3,000 acres, enough to supply two-thirds of the American
heroin market.

Why did drug production suddenly soar in Colombia? In large part, coca
shifted over the border when government crackdowns in Peru and Bolivia
(helped by a fungus that attacked Peruvian coca) pushed production down in
those countries. Opium poppy arrived after Colombian traffickers cut deals
with southeast Asian gangs, who traditionally dominated heroin production
and smuggling, in order to get involved in the American heroin market. More
crucial, though, was the chaos in the Colombian countryside. Leftist
guerrillas who held effective control over huge swaths of Colombia,
especially in the south, encouraged the traffickers to develop coca and
opium poppy on their lands. In exchange for protection from the government,
the rebels taxed the drug producers. The traffickers got a steady supply of
drugs, and the rebels got a lucrative source of financing for their war. The
current civil war in Colombia has been going on for 35 years. Why had this
not occurred before? Many experts feel the guerrillas owed their new
strength to the American government's decision to isolate Samper.

Ethan Nadelmann, a former Princeton professor, is now head of the Lindesmith
Center, a drug policy reform group in New York City, and a leading critic of
the War on Drugs. In Colombia, he says, the United States was stupid.

"We had a guy there, President Samper, who was taking money from some
traffickers, but this was the same guy who had done more to take out
traffickers than any other president had. We were so hung up on the
corruption end of it that we went after him with all we had and punished the
country to get rid of him.

"In two or three years of punishing Samper, we weakened the central state,
we weakened the civilian government."

With Colombia's government isolated and forced to focus its meager resources
on the fight against the drug cartels, the rebels rapidly expanded their
territorial control. Then drug producers were invited into rebel-controlled
lands, creating a bonanza for the guerrillas that financed new weapons.

With the central state weakened, the paramilitaries rose to become political
powers unto themselves, with independent financing and strong control in
many regions. Again, the illegal trade in drugs was their springboard.

The economy, meanwhile, has crumbled. After decades of economic expansion,
Colombia is now in its worst economic recession since the 1930s. Here, too,
the fingerprints of the illegal drug trade can be found. Corruption, the
standard tool of illegal drug trafficking, erodes the quality of governance,
which in turn hampers development efforts. And the huge profits of
narco-trafficking create serious structural distortions to the economy over

All this leaves Colombia as it is today, seven years after Escobar was shot
dead. The murder rate is 10 times that in the United States--on average, one
person is killed every 20 minutes.

Monica de Greiff, too, despairs. She feels Colombia today is worse off than
it was when Escobar and the drug lords terrorized the nation. These should
be happy days for de Greiff. Earlier this year, she finally gave up her last

"I can walk in the streets alone; I can go and shop alone." But the dark
mood in the streets and shops is draining. At her law office, de Greiff gets
three or four calls a day from people trying to go to live in the United

"This isn't how it was supposed to be after fighting and winning the
greatest victories the War on Drugs has ever known."

Ottawa Citizen
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