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The minister who had to die: Colombia's drug war.

The Minister Who Had To Die

Like the man who must die in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Colombian Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla had known for months that his life was in peril. "The drug traffickers want to kill me,' he had repeatedly told friends, relatives and colleagues. Thus, when the 38-year-old Minister was shot to death by paid assassins on the evening of April 30, those familiar with his doubts and fears were not surprised.

A leading member of the most progressive faction of the Liberal Party, Lara Bonilla was President Belisario Betancur's only adviser with the temerity to state publicly what all knew privately: that eight drug families, controlling a billion-dollar cocaine trade to the United States, have penetrated every sector of Colombian society, from the military and the banks to soccer teams and the Catholic Church. Lara Bonilla had stalked several of the most prominent drug capos, grounded 300 planes that flew drugs to the United States and proposed a regional pact to halt drug trafficking. As a result of those actions, the Justice Minister had received frequent telephone death threats, his home and office phones had been tapped by the drug dealers and he had been the target of two previous murder plots. One was discovered by U.S. and Colombian officials last September, and the paid assassin--an escaped U.S. convict--was immediately deported. Another was discovered in February. Fearful for his life and that of his wife and three sons, Lara Bonilla had asked to be reassigned as Colombia's Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, where he would be far from the reach of the vengeful drug families. "I can't remain in the country,' he told the Bogota daily El Tiempo the day before he was killed.

Although Lara Bonilla knew he was a marked man, most of his colleagues in government seemed stunned by his death. For two years President Betancur's administration has effectively ignored the threat posed by the drug mafia, which has become part of the country's economic and political mainstream. On the day the Minister was murdered, the President had lunch with Senator Alberto Santofimio, chief political ally of Congressman Pablo Escobar Gaviria, who is being sought by Colombian authorities in connection with murder and drug-trafficking cases. And it was Betancur who, over Lara Bonilla's protests, refused to honor a 1979 treaty with Washington for the extradition of Colombian traffickers wanted for crimes in the United States.

Why Betancur reneged is uncertain. A popular leader who is trying to forge a truce with the country's guerrilla forces, the good-humored President has brought refreshing changes to Colombian politics, which had been marked by cynicism and blatant corruption during the administration of his predecessor, Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala. But because there was no political lobby for a crackdown against the drug racketeers, Betancur "tolerated organized crime as an inevitable evil,' observed the Bogota newsweekly Semana.

Nor was his government the first to do so. Since the drug boom began in the mid-1970s, the families that dominate the traffic have waxed rich and powerful. According to the Colombian Justice Ministry and local police, they have helped elect congressmen; bought judges, military and police officials; founded a political organization, the National Latin Movement; and launched a newspaper, Quindio Libre. Even the country's conservative Catholic Church has been drawn into their web. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo--Archbishop of Medellin and intimate of Pope John Paul II--and two priests in his archdiocese were associated with cocaine kingpin Escobar in a civic movement that was actually a smokescreen for Escobar's illicit activities. According to the Bogota daily El Espectador, the Cardinal, who keeps homes in Medellin, Bogota and Rome, distanced himself from Escobar only after Colombia's Congress initiated an investigation of the alleged coke capo.

Colombia's principal political parties, Betancur's Conservatives and the rival Liberals, frequently accept contributions from drug traffickers--as much as $1 million for the 1982 presidential and congressional elections, according to informed diplomatic sources. Lara Bonilla often complained privately that his battle against the mafia was a "lonely struggle' without the support of the two parties, which he said were "too tolerant' of the drug industry. The day after the murder Betancur himself admitted that Colombian society had become so accustomed to drug corruption that one of the most popular subjects at social gatherings was "who had gotten rich on the traffic.'

But even in Latin America's narcotics emporium, tolerance has a limit, and the shooting of Lara Bonilla by two thugs on motorcycles, one of whom was killed and the other arrested, proved too much. Although drug-related murders of judges and government officials have become a common occurrence, the killing of a Cabinet Minister represents a frontal attack on the country's political institutions. "This is war,' declared an angry Betancur.

Within hours of Lara Bonilla's murder, Betancur announced a nationwide state of siege to stamp out the drug traffic. The police and military burst into dozens of houses, apartments and ranches belonging to known capos, and more than a hundred people were arrested. The President also announced he would honor the extradition treaty with the United States, starting with big fish Carlos Lehder Rivas, a former partner of fugitive financier Robert Vesco in a Bahamas coke-smuggling operation and, by the estimate of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the source of 10 percent of all cocaine entering the United States.

But while the press and politicians greeted such measures with enthusiasm, a number of variables may affect the final results. The first is whether the government has the ability to stamp out an industry with enough economic clout to challenge the political will of an affronted President. Drugs are Colombia's second-largest export, after coffee, and the traffic fuels important sectors of the economy. Thus, the narcotics crackdown wrought havoc on the peso: in the past few weeks Colombia's currency has lost 30 percent of its value. In a nation where two-thirds of the population earns $100 or less per month, the prospect of easy riches will lure Colombians so long as there is a booming market for the product in wealthy consumer nations, particularly the United States.

Drug money also buys power and immunity. Despite the scale of Betancur's antinarcotics operation, a number of well-known drug families and their client congressmen are untouched. Protected by their connections with local police and military officials, they continue business as usual. Nor did the initial dragnet turn up any trafficker of importance; most of those arrested were low-level employees--maids and chauffeurs--and only two second-line dealers were imprisoned. To catch the bosses and destroy their organizations will take months of effort, and determination may wane as the story moves to the newspapers' back pages.

While Lara Bonilla's death shocked the nation, the hypocrisy that has enabled the ruling class to adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward drug trafficking remains deeply embedded in the political culture. Moreover, elements in the military and police, who have final responsibility for the drug war, remain sympathetic to the right-wing politics of the drug traffickers. Escobar and Lehder, for example, have provided financial support to a right-wing death squad named MAS (Muerte a Secuestradores, or "Death to Kidnappers'), which includes former members of the police and military, according to Colombian Attorney General Carlos Jimenez Gomez. MAS has been responsible for a string of murders since its founding in late 1981; most of its victims have been left-wing activists or union leaders.

Until Lara Bonilla's assassination, President Betancur stubbornly held to his election promise of 1982 that he would not impose a state of siege. In reversing that policy Betancur was careful to emphasize that, unlike previous regimes, he did not intend to use decree powers for a witch hunt against the left, which would endanger ongoing negotiations with the guerrillas. But the President has little control over events in remote rural areas, particularly Caqueta in southern Colombia and the Magdalena Medio region in the central part of the country, where the guerrillas and the army are engaged in a small-scale version of the war in El Salvador. Whether either side will accept the distinctions made by Betancur is an open question. State-of-siege powers conferred on the military in the past have often led to human rights abuses, and for the more intransigent forces among the guerrillas, the action proves Betancur cannot be trusted to keep his word. Thus the state of siege is another obstacle in the mine field leading to a political accord with the left, one of Betancur's goals that has never had the support of either the military or the political establishment.

Another unknown in the drug war is who plotted and paid for Lara Bonilla's death. According to police the assassins were hired from the lower echelons of the underworld in Medellin, the cocaine capital of Latin America, but apparently never knew the identity of the persons at the top of the chain of command. The two previous attempts on the Justice Minister's life, his public feud with the capos and his support for the extradition treaty with the United States all point to the drug traffickers. On the other hand, they had to be extremely stupid, in the words of a local newspaper, to believe they could get away with such a crude assault on institutional authority, and the capos have never been stupid. Still, even the most intelligent crooks can be beguiled by power, and the government's tacit acceptance of the drug trade may have been interpreted as a sign of weakness. In any event, informed sources report that the capos knew of Lara Bonilla's impending murder and took measures to insure they would not be found when the police came knocking. If and when the heat lets up, they may reappear. The organizational structures remain intact despite the crackdown.

Another theory--advanced by such respectable publications as Semana--is that the Drug Enforcement Administration and/or the Central Intelligence Agency were behind Lara Bonilla's death, since they have the most to gain from the narcotics manhunt. The argument has a certain logic, particularly since the D.E.A.'s predecessor did form a death squad to eliminate foreign traffickers during Richard Nixon's Administration (because of Watergate it was disbanded before any assassinations could be carried out). The C.I.A.'s war on Nicaragua and many of its other secret operations prove the agency is capable of such an atrocity. But the risks of discovery--and the C.I.A. has never proved very good at keeping secrets--boggle the imagination.

Whatever the long-term effects of Lara Bonilla's death, for the first time Colombia's press and its politicians have dared to speak openly against those who run the drug traffic. In a country where the average citizen is conditioned not to protest, for fear of reprisal, public recognition of the drug challenge is itself an advance--not so much as an inroad against corruption, which Colombians have always taken for granted, but as a warning to the crooks that there is a limit to society's tolerance of crime. Unlike the American mafia, which has wisely measured such limits, Colombia's capos misjudged their country by flaunting power. Although that power may eventually be reasserted, it is unlikely to assume the same boldness, thanks to the sacrifice of a lonely crusader.
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Title Annotation:Columbian Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla
Author:Lernoux, Penny
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jun 16, 1984
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