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Colombia Drug Kingpins Take Thousands of Acres in Bloody Land Grab : Crime: 20 Paez Indians were massacred in 1991 raid on a farm they claimed by ancestral rights. Traffickers own one-third of nation's prime grazing land, the government says.

April 11, 1993|TOM WELLS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CALOTO, Colombia — One moonlit night, 50 gunmen crept up to a ranch house on a wind-swept, grassy knoll, where Paez Indians were discussing a drug trafficker's demands that they get off his land.

Minutes later, the gunmen drug 20 Indians from the brick and adobe building, threw them on the ground face down and shot them in the back of the head as they pleaded for mercy. The victims were four children, four women and 12 men. A few Indians escaped.

Another chapter had been written in the bloody tale of drug traffickers' becoming the biggest ranchers in Colombia.

Paez Indians had claimed the land by ancestral right. Last August, the government's land-reform agency confiscated the 1,748-acre ranch and ceded it to 50 Indian families.

It was one of only two successful cases of the government's Agrarian Reform Institute's seizing land from drug traffickers. The Supreme Court has reversed dozens of other attempts.

Traffickers now own one-third of Colombia's 22.5 million acres of prime grazing land, said Fernando Corrales, director of the Institute.

Based on prevailing land prices, it is worth about $30 billion. The value is doubled by thousands of miles of fences, hundreds of thousands of cattle and mansions with gold bathroom fixtures, swimming pools, tennis courts and guest houses.

In northwestern Colombia, where the Medellin drug cartel is based, legitimate ranchers say traffickers have bought up vast areas.

Traditional ranches have cowboys on horseback. On the traffickers' spreads, men wearing sunglasses, draped with gold chains, guard the gates with submachine guns.

Between Medellin and its airport lie thousands of acres of lush green pastures that belong to the Ochoa family, said by police to have been a cornerstone of the drug cartel.

Mansions dot rolling hills where thousands of Holstein dairy cows graze.

Three members of the Ochoa family surrendered in 1991 and are in jail. They were promised they would not be extradited to the United States and would be treated leniently in Colombian courts. All have yet to be tried.

No statistics are available on the traffickers' investments elsewhere in Colombia, but police say billions pour into factories, shopping centers, construction, hotels, communications, trucking and other businesses.

The government began seizing some of the traffickers' property in 1989 and 1990, but the Supreme Court reversed the confiscations. Police reported finding arms, dynamite and more than $100 million in gold and U.S. currency buried on some of the ranches.

When it comes to confronting the drug-trafficking problem, the Colombian Supreme Court's record is not illustrious.

In the 1980s, after traffickers had killed about three dozen federal judges, the court declared extradition to the United States unconstitutional. That effectively removed the only thing the drug barons really feared: trial in the U.S.

One Supreme Court judge became a lawyer for Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel.

Since the government and army have gone after the Medellin drug gangs, the Cali cartel has become the world's biggest cocaine operation.

Traffickers in Cali, about 400 miles south of Medellin in western Colombia, have become so relaxed that one middle-level operator took reporters to poppy fields last year for stories on heroin production.

Early in March, the same man told an Associated Press reporter the Cali cartel puts much of its profit into Colombian businesses. Cali cartel families send their children to the best universities in the United States and Europe to get degrees in business management, he said.

Drug traffickers have little opposition in the Cali area. Residents say a cocaine laboratory had operated for years in Santander, not far from the site of the massacre of Paez Indians, with the knowledge of police and town officials.

Anti-narcotics officers found the lab and destroyed it.

Caloto, the nearest village to where the Paez Indians were massacred, is 40 miles south of Cali.

Survivors of the massacre say policemen were among those who killed the Indians. The Indians brought murder charges against four policemen a year ago, but a judge says the documents in the case have been lost.

A cemetery for the victims occupies one acre in the Andes foothills.

In it are 20 simple white crosses, each bearing the name of a victim and the date of the massacre, Dec. 16, 1991. The cemetery is beside the ranch house, now abandoned, where the Indians met on that fateful night.

Twelve Indian children and three adults accompanied a reporter and photographer to the cemetery, a half-hour walk from a dirt road.

The children laughed as they ran ahead, hand in hand, through the grassy fields, their brown legs churning and the girls' long black hair flying in the wind.

At the cemetery, they fell silent. Two little girls whose father was buried there held hands and fought back tears. They are among 72 children who lost parents in the massacre.

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