The announcement that Colombia's drug kingpins are launching a "total war" against its government comes as no surprise. Intimidation has always been their style.
But for all of their bravado and firepower, the thugs employed by the major drug cartels based in Medellin and Cali are unlikely to engage Colombia's armed forces head-on in pitched battles. Instead, like political terrorists, they will use the cowardly strategy of targeting innocent bystanders, including the families of their opponents, hoping that such attacks will frighten the government into ending its crackdown on drug trafficking.
That strategy is clearly stated in the declaration of war issued by the drug cartels last week. The drug lords said they are prepared to wage "total and absolute war" against the Colombian government and the nation's "oligarchy," meaning the leaders of political parties, the business sector and even labor unions. The communique was found with an unexploded bomb near a major Bogota radio station on the day that explosions destroyed the offices of Colombia's two largest political parties and that the homes of two prominent politicians and a major industrialist were shot up and burned. The drug cartels are sending a warning that henceforth anyone could be a target of their hit men.
At first glance, that prospect appears sufficiently frightening to guarantee submission. But when one considers the bloodshed and grief that the illicit drug trade has already caused in Colombia--an average of 60 murders per week by one recent estimate--it hardly seems possible for things to get worse. In the last decade, drug-related violence has claimed hundreds of lives, including those of dozens of judges, policemen, a justice minister and even a presidential candidate. It was last week's murder of that presidential aspirant, Sen. Luis Carlos Galan, that finally outraged Colombians to the point that a painful national consensus seems to have has emerged--the drug cartels must be defeated, regardless of the cost.
That war will be a prolonged struggle with few clear-cut victories. And well-meaning people the world over must face the harsh reality that the human cost is likely to be high. Colombia is no stranger to violence. From the late 1940s to the mid-'60s, the nation was ravaged by a series of political disputes that killed an estimated 250,000 people. Colombians still refer to that period simply and sadly as La Violencia. One hopes it won't take similar bloodshed to defeat the drug cartels, but it is possible.
There are encouraging signs that the drug cartels are already suffering some losses. In recent months Colombian authorities have seized large amounts of the chemicals used to transform coca paste into cocaine. That prevents its production, and the serious financial losses that result may account for the ferocity with which the drug lords are now fighting. If the vast majority of decent Colombians have the courage to absorb the losses that will be necessary to defeat the drug lords, the violence going on now may someday be remembered as the beginning of the end of Colombia's war to reclaim its honor from violent gangsters.