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Colombian Cocaine: Troubles for Export

April 12, 1987|Cecilia Rodriguez | Cecilia Rodriguez is the West coast correspondent for El Tiempo, Colombia's largest daily newspaper.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — One recent morning Colombians went through a time warp, back to the days when we could still be surprised by any news having to do with drug trafficking.

Radio and television broadcasts were interrupted by a startling announcement nobody could believe: Carlos Lehder had been captured. Hours later, he was gone, extradited to the United States for the punishment he never would have faced in his country.

During the last decade, the narcotics industry had grown so much, nourished so many billionaires, spread so much corruption and immorality--and produced so many crimes--that Colombians have become immune to its dangers. It's almost impossible anymore to impress us with daily drug news.

No one, however, ever expected Lehder's downfall. He was the most important figure in our gallery of anti-heroes. In a poor country badly managed by inefficient leaders, where official graft and greed dictate government decisions and powerful machines rule political life, heroes are scarce. Instead, anti-heroes born from cocaine abound--rich beyond belief and all-powerful, ever-fascinating.

They dominate dinner-table conversations throughout the country, including the most intimate details of their lives and their eccentricities. They have become part of the country's image at home and abroad, like coffee and cocaine. They are seen everywhere and constantly, alone or with entourages, but the police can never find them. They can walk in cities and not be seen by the authorities. We half-jokingly call them magicos --magicians.

Among them, Lehder was one of the most flamboyant, affluent, dangerous and, until 1987, invincible. For years he had been the magico 's magico and as such, his capture and immediate extradition triggered extreme and diverse reactions inside and outside the country. Colombian authorities tripped over themselves in an excess of backslapping and self-congratulation. U.S. officials were equally ecstatic--as if from one day to the next, the drug crisis had been laid to rest.

Yet Lehder's collapse fueled many sensitive debates throughout the country that strike at the way we see ourselves: Does it make sense for Colombia to wage a war it cannot support? The government continues to arrest dealers, burn marijuana and coca fields, destroy cocaine processing laboratories and seize cargoes of drugs ready for shipment--while the country sinks deeper in economic crisis. And always there are new hands, new fields, new labs and new cargoes to replace those lost and to fill the U.S. demand for drugs.

Lehder's capture also contributed to already existing anti-Americanism in this stalwart U.S. ally. His compatriots from the state of Quindio loudly demand answers to questions that no one wants to confront: Why should he be arrested by Colombians when his crimes were in the United States? If he was creating employment, helping finance local economic development and public works, what threat did he pose to his countrymen?

And outside Quindio, many Colombians were raising other issues: Why do gringos have to tell us what to do here? What right does the United States have to pressure Colombia to fight a war it is losing within its own borders? Before Lehder's capture, these people complain, the Reagan Administration consistently blasted Colombia for not committing itself to the war against drugs. Yet, how can American officials criticize us even as they reduce the budget to battle the U.S. drug industry?

According to the most widespread unofficial version, Lehder's arrest was the only way to ease growing pressure from some Colombian politicians (including the president), to erase impressions of Colombians' violent nature. Images of Colombia as world Drug Demon have made us sensitive and defensive.

Along the streets, we indulge in ironic humor as a form of protection: Yes, the world is using our cocaine to get high, but at least we offer the best cocaine available, 100% pure. And our magicos ? They can run rings around any multinational chief executive officer--they created a mass market for product in record time.

At higher levels of society, discussions revolve around "alternative solutions." Among those most often raised is the idea of legalizing the narcotics trade as the only way for the government to control it. Other sectors, however, still believe that war against the narcos is the best and only solution. The press as an institution is loudest in its support for the battle.

Journalists' fear of retribution by drug lords has crippled the country's longstanding tradition of a free press more effectively than could any military dictatorship. They have reason to be afraid: Magicos are willing to murder.

Trying to neutralize the threat, the press decided to organize a major campaign in December after the killing of one of its own, Guillermo Cano, editor of the country's second-largest daily newspaper. Thirteen newspapers, eight television news programs and the two most important radio networks launched series of stories denouncing the traffickers.

The first blast of the campaign was from the United States--the reprinting of a Miami Herald series about Colombia drugs. Editors vow, however, to follow with their own investigations.

Yet everyone is skeptical about finding a solution. The narcotics business is too colossal, the quantity of money too great--and the poverty too deep.

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