Pubdate: Sun, 21 Nov 1999
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: Guardian Media Group plc. 1999
Author: Tony Thompson


The red Mazda sedan had sat outside a restaurant on the main avenue of
Bogota"s commercial district for at least four hours before it exploded.
Razor-sharp shrapnel destroyed nearby buildings and blew out windows up to a
quarter of a mile away.

At first the blast, which killed eight and injured 45, was thought to be the
work of rebels who have waged a guerrilla war in Colombia since the
mid-Sixties. But it soon emerged the bomb was the work of a group far more
feared - the drug cartels.

Last month the US authorities claimed they had dealt a major blow to the
drugs trade when they arrested Fabio Ochoa, a founder of the Medellin
cartel. Looking pale and frightened, the 42-year-old playboy sobbed his
defiance as he was dragged away by more than 60 armed special agents: "I am
innocent, I swear it on the lives of my children."

But those who know Ochoa say it was little more than an act. "He goes back
to the most violent of the violent," says Tom Cash, former chief of the US
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). "Violence is his middle name."

Arrested with Ochoa were some 30 others, said to be responsible for flooding
the US with more than $60 billion worth of cocaine each year. The morning
after the arrest, former Justice Minister Enrique Parejo explained:
"Drug-traffickers have become used to the fact that the only way to fight
the state is with violence. There"s a risk they could again resort to the
same tactics."

That afternoon, Ochoa"s sister issued a chilling statement calling on the
government to honour its promise not to extradite anyone, or it would face
the consequences. Rumours that jailed drug capos had contributed $9.6
million to a secret "war fund" to launch a campaign of violence against the
government were everywhere.

Last week the widow and son of another founder of the Medellin cartel, Pablo
Escobar, were arrested. Victoria Henao, 39, and Juan Pablo Escobar, 22 -
said to be worth $1bn - had settled in Argentina with false papers soon
after Pablo"s death in a shoot-out with police in 1993.

Victoria ostensibly ran a clothing shop and Juan worked as an aide to a
university professor, but the authorities in Argentina accused them of
running a money-laundering gang. Supporters of the cartel have
circulated stories of how they plan to return to the "old ways" to fight
government attempts to return the pair to Colombia, where they could fall
prey to murder or kidnapping.

Now Colombians are wondering whether the latest blast marks a return to the
terror of 10 years ago or is a sign of desperation by the gangsters who are
losing control of the world"s number one illicit commodity - cocaine.

The drug"s rise is almost wholly down to the fortunes of the Ochoa family in
the mid-Seventies. They had become rich through horse-dealing but then an
ill-conceived business deal by the corpulent Fabio Ochoa Snr bankrupted the
estate. His three sons, Jorge, Juan and Fabio Jr, and their friend Pablo
Escobar, had all spent time in the US and, having seen the growing appetite
for cocaine, knew the best way to keep the family afloat.

What made the Ochoas different was that they dominated every aspect of the
trade. When they realised that cocaine, which cost $3,000 a kilo in
Colombia, was selling for closer to $40,000 in Miami, they set up their own
international smuggling and distribution networks. Demand escalated and so
did profits. By the late Eighties Fortune magazine listed the family riches
at $15bn and they were said to control one-third of Colombia"s entire

While the rival Cali cartel used bribery, the Medellin cartel resorted to
violence. When Colombia introduced the extradition of traffickers, the
cartels bombed the government into submission. Extradition was reinstated in
1997 and President Andres Pastrana pledged to resume handovers after his
election last year. He responded to the bombing defiantly, signing the
extradition papers of alleged Colombian heroin boss Jaime Orlando Lara,
Venezuelan cocaine suspect Fernando Jose Florez, and accused Cuban
trafficker Sergio Bravilo Gonzalez. That clears the way for handover to the
US of the first of 42 jailed drug suspects.

The President"s bravery comes from the knowledge that the Colombian barons
no longer have the power they once had. Today the power base is in Mexico,
particularly in the border town of Tijuana - 70 per cent of the world"s
cocaine is now sourced through Mexico.

According to Thomas Constantine of the DEA, the Tijuana cartel is "one of
the most powerful organised crime syndicates in the world today". Greasing
official wheels with offers of silver or lead, they act as "gatekeepers" for
1,000 miles of frontier and for the world"s busiest border crossing at San

The Tijuana cartel uses encrypted cellphones, satellites and the Internet to
avoid detection, Despite a promise by Mexico of a $400m "total war" on
smugglers, US officials said no major traffickers were indicted in Mexico
last year. Drug hauls, arrests and seizures of cars, boats and trucks have
all declined.
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