Pubdate: Mon, 21 May 2001
Source: Newsweek (US)
Section: International, Page 38
Copyright: 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
Authors: Joseph Contreras, With Michael Isikoff in Washington


In the foothills of the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas in northeastern
Colombia, the Kogi Indians whisper his name in fear. Along the docks
of the Caribbean port city of Santa Marta, gangsters speak with awe of
his 400-man private army. But everyone knows that when it comes to
Hernan Giraldo Serna, it's usually best not to know too much. The
gangsters quietly recall, for instance, that in 1999 Giraldo ordered
the brutal murders of four construction workers, whose bodies were
then cut to bits with a chain saw. Their offense? They had built a
special basement to store his multimillion-dollar cache of cocaine,
and they knew where it was.

Giraldo personifies a disturbing new trend in Colombia's huge
narcotics industry: right-wing paramilitary leaders fighting to take
control of the country's coca fields. In the past two years Giraldo
and his Los Chamizos (Charred Tree) militiamen have joined leaders of
the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a loose-knit
coalition of private right-wing armies, to force 20,000 Marxist
guerrillas out of many key cocaine- and heroin-producing regions.
Colombian intelligence sources now estimate that 40 percent of the
country's total cocaine exports are controlled by these right-wing
warlords and their allies in the narcotics underworld. These sources
believe Giraldo alone is head of a burgeoning drug syndicate that
accounts for $1.2 billion in annual shipments to the United States and
Europe. That puts him among the country's top five cocaine
traffickers. Some Colombian intelligence officials believe that
Giraldo, the son of a dirt-poor cattle rancher, may one day rival the
late Medellin-cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar in both wealth and power.

Yet when it comes to right-wing drug lords, American policymakers--and
even some counternarcotics officials--are rarely accused of knowing
too much. In a recent interview, two of Washington's top drug warriors
in Bogota said they had never heard of Giraldo. That admission goes to
the core of a key problem with Wash-ington's multibillion-dollar
program to staunch the export of heroin and cocaine from Colombia. For
political reasons, U.S. officials have been largely content to focus
on drug-trafficking by Marxist guerrillas who have been fighting the
government since 1964. (Targeting the guerrillas is the central aim of
Washington's chief ally, Colombian President Andres Pastrana, and his
$7.5 billion Plan Colombia to cut drug production in half.) But as the
leftists retreat, right-wing private armies--which have grown in
response to leftist threats to businessmen and farmers--are
prospering, and the Colombian government may be looking the other way.

The Bush administration is just beginning to grapple with these
issues. Last week Bush nominated hard-liner John Walters as his new
drug czar. Walters helped design drug-interdiction efforts in the
Andean region for the first Bush administration. But NEWSWEEK has
learned that even Walters has expressed some skepticism about Plan
Colombia, and that the White House has ordered a policy review. One of
Walters's concerns: too much U.S. aid is going to the Colombian
military, which has long been tied to the right-wing paramilitaries.
"It looks like we're heavily invested in a country where the situation
is destabilizing rapidly," says a senior administration official.
"It's enough to give everybody pause."

In recent weeks the State Department has seemed to shift tack on the
paramilitaries. At the end of April it included Carlos Castano, head
of the AUC paramilitary movement, on its terrorist-watch list for the
first time. The significance of the decision was diminished somewhat
because the AUC was placed in a second-tier category of "other
terrorist organizations" that are deemed not to be direct threats to
U.S. citizens or companies. But some Colombian officials suspect that
Castano and his cohorts couldn't care less either way. "I don't think
the paramilitaries are any more worried about the [State Department
list] than atheists are of excommunication," said Prosecutor General
Alfonso Gomez Mendez. "The important thing is arresting the
paramilitary leadership."

Giraldo has already been arrested once--to no avail. That was in 1989,
when he was still trafficking in marijuana. Giraldo had been convicted
for the massacres of 20 unionized banana-plantation workers, crimes
for which he got a 20-year prison sentence. Undercover police agents
snatched him just outside Santa Marta and brought him to Bogota to
face charges. But apparently the case was never followed up, and
before long Giraldo was back in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.

The mustached, hard-drinking drug lord switched to cocaine as his
primary export commodity in 1992. Since then Giraldo's hit men have
continued to kill suspected guerrilla sympathizers and trade-union
members. In 1995 members of Giraldo's private army kidnapped a wealthy
local businessman named Ambrosio Plata and demanded $1 million in
ransom for his release. According to Colombian intelligence sources,
Giraldo ordered Plata shot and then carved up his body with a chain
saw after the ransom money was delivered. He abducted the victim's
widow, Pilar, three years later and summarily executed her upon
receipt of a $5 million ransom payment. A major in the Colombian
Army's anti-kidnapping squad met a similar fate in 1999 when he tried
to collect a $150,000 fee from Giraldo for having guarded a
3,000-kilogram consignment of cocaine.

Over the years Giraldo has amassed a formidable network of properties
and money-laundering businesses in the Santa Marta area. Colombian
intelligence sources say he owns dozens of homes and farms, a
fish-exporting business and a posh hotel. Generous donations to port
authorities, police officials and politicians ensure that Giraldo's
narcotics shipments sail unhindered from the sparsely populated
coastline east of Santa Marta. Prosecutor General Gomez argues that
Giraldo and his confederates in the paramilitaries must have important
friends within the Colombian security services. "There must be
complicity on the part of those agencies that are supposed to carry
out the orders for their arrest," says Gomez. (The Pastrana
administration declined to comment.)

The Colombian government recently has tried to look tough by launching
some rare Army strikes against right-wing militias. But no one expects
Giraldo himself to be captured or killed any time soon. Abetted by
ranchers and police who advise him about the arrival of outsiders,
Giraldo can easily vanish into the remote valleys of the Sierra
Nevadas on foot or by mule. "He has informants working throughout the
region who radio him when the authorities are coming in," says one
Colombian intelligence official. "That gives him ample time to flee
into the mountains and avoid capture." Then again, that may just be a
convenient excuse for letting Giraldo roam free. And it may just give
the Bush administration added justification to retreat from Plan Colombia.
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