Pubdate: Thu, 25 Nov  1999
Source: Guardian Weekly, The (UK)
Copyright: Guardian Publications 1999
Contact:  75 Farringdon Road London U.K EC1M 3HQ
Fax: 44-171-242-0985
Page: 3
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 half a kilometre away.

At first the blast, which killed eight people and injured 45, was
thought to be the work of rebels who have waged a guerrilla war in
Colombia since the 60s. But it soon emerged the bomb was the work of a
group far more feared - the drug cartels.

Last month United States officials claimed that they had dealt a heavy
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
special agents: "I am innocent, I swear it on the lives of my children."

But those who know Ochoa say it was 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 around 30 others, said to be responsible for
flooding the US with more than $60bn worth of cocaine each year. The
day after the arrest, Colombia's 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."

Later 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 kingpins had
contributed $9.6m 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

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 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 No 1 illicit commodity - cocaine.

The drug's rise is almost wholly down to the fortunes of the Ochoa
family in the mid-70s. They became 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 80s Fortune magazine listed
the family riches at $15bn, and they were said to control one-third of
Colombia's wealth.

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 and others, which 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% 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 silver or lead, they act as "gatekeepers" for
1,500km of frontier and for the world's busiest border crossing.

Despite a promise by Mexico of a $400m "total war" on smugglers, US
officials said no big traffickers were indicted in Mexico last year.
Drug hauls and arrests have all declined.
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