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America From Abroad : Colombians: We Won't Be Scapegoats : Chafing under the stigma of 'narco-terrorism,' they accuse Americans of creating the demand for drugs. And when it comes to enforcement, they say, Washington is all talk.


BOGOTA, Colombia — A tone of indignation rose in Oscar Ortiz's voice as he hurled a heavy share of the blame for Colombian "narco-terrorism" at U.S. drug consumers.

"For every Colombian, there is a drug addict up there paying money to the criminal enterprises that kill our leaders and generate chaos for our society," said Ortiz, 23, a university student.

Many Americans see Colombia as the main source of the scourge called cocaine. In this country, however, the scourge has a bloody underside seen at least in part as an ugly outgrowth of U.S. problems.

The April 26 assassination of leftist candidate Carlos Pizarro Leongomez, the third Colombian presidential hopeful killed in eight months, has focused new attention on the wanton violence by cocaine traffickers asserting their sinister power in defiance of official repression. In tracing narco-terrorism's roots to the United States, Ortiz sees his country not only as a victim of the American drug problem but also as a scapegoat for U.S. failure to solve it.

Visit a cross-section of Colombians and you'll hear that the United States is better at talking about the drug problem than doing anything in its own back yard. They concede that their country is home to the world's biggest international cocaine cartels, but they say that if the United States was nearly as tough on traffickers as it demands that the Colombians be, there might be more progress. Instead, they see U.S. enforcement efforts as half-hearted. And many argue that the only answer to the problem is legalization.

"Colombians feel this very strongly, that they are the scapegoats, that they are the victims," conceded an American diplomat here. "There is an awful lot of feeling of powerlessness, that they can't do anything against market forces that are so strong."

Listen to Ortiz and some of his fellow students as they talk about the problem around a table on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Bogota.

Omar Valencia: "Americans think that if there were no raw material for the cocaine distribution networks, the networks wouldn't be there. But it is also vice versa. If the traffickers don't have the networks to market cocaine in the United States, the supply won't be there."

Alfonso Giraldo: "Because of the dependence created by the drug, there is a big demand for it, and that makes people produce it."

Valencia: "It seems very unjust that we pay in violent deaths because of the solution demanded by the United States. They demand that we fight the problem here without quarter. I would demand that they try to find another solution to this problem that is not violent."

Ortiz: "To end the consumption of drugs by Americans would require a change of culture, and that would take time. We don't have that time."

Andres Arango: "The United States should fight the problem internally with the same repression that they ask of us. I get the impression that they don't have the same commitment to eliminating distribution networks as they ask of us."

Ortiz: "I don't see the political will in the United States to control the whole drug problem, because they have a much better organized government apparatus than we do. That means there are authorities who are not making efforts because it isn't in their interest."

Arango: "The United States and Europe are also careless about arms traffic. The weapons that traffickers use to kill judges, candidates, police in Colombia get here because of the carelessness of the big powers."

Carlos Lemos, a prominent opponent of cocaine traffickers and until recently the minister of government in Colombia's Cabinet, accused U.S. authorities of much talk and little action in dealing with domestic drug traffic. "Drugs have become a good rhetorical resource in the United States, a good subject for speeches. The government has not acted as it must to limit demand. I think there are vested interests, because it is a very big business. . . . There is corruption, obviously. We have experienced here the immense corrupting capacity that drug traffickers have."

Seated at an antique desk in his comfortable Bogota apartment, Sen. Alvaro Gomez, 71, a veteran leader of Colombia's traditional Conservative Party who is running for president on a splinter ticket, sketched a graph to help explain why he believes Colombia can do little or nothing to stop cocaine traffic.

At the top of the graph, Gomez penciled in $15,000--an estimate of the wholesale price for a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of cocaine in the United States. At the bottom, he put the estimated cost of production--$1,000 a kilo. The $14,000 difference, he said, is the "liquidity" produced by the business and used by its owners to corrupt and intimidate Colombian society.

Gomez: "This profit is what is paying the hired killers here. With this you can buy hired killers, you can buy judges, you can buy justices."

If Colombian authorities, with great repressive effort, increase cocaine's production cost to $3,000 a kilo, barely a dent is made in the traffickers' formidable liquidity, Gomez said. The liquidity can be significantly reduced only at the U.S. end, he added, "but not by reducing consumption such and such a percentage per year. Because meanwhile, the liquidity of the business, which is such a good business, finishes off this country. And if it finishes off this one, then it finishes off Mexico, or it finishes off Brazil. The liquidity is our enemy."

The only possible answer, according to Gomez and a seemingly growing number of other Colombians, is legalization of cocaine in the United States.

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