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The Cocaine Conundrum : Can Colombia Finally Win the War on Drugs? Better to Ask: Can It Survive If It Does Win?

September 24, 1995|Alan Weisman | Alan Weisman is a contributing editor to the magazine who lives in Sonoita, Ariz. His last article was on harnessing hydrogen as a fuel

Two degrees above the Equator, in a sultry, lowland province of eastern Colombia, runoff from the Andes begins to drain away from the Caribbean and flow south toward Brazil. This place, called the Guaviare, is the upper reach of Amazonia, where coastal savannas disappear beneath unbroken forest, rain falls for 10 straight months and biological fervor builds to near-delirium. About the size of Belgium, the Guaviare has no paved roads, or barely any roads at all. The main exception is a 40-mile mud trench that, in dry weather, connects the provincial capital of San Jose (virtually inaccessible except by air or river) to the jungle outpost of Calamar.

On the Friday evening of June 9, 1995, nothing special was happening in Calamar. The afternoon cloudburst had been torrential but brief. By sunset, men and women in clean cotton shirts and dresses were picking their way through slick, brown muck along the nameless main street that parallels the Rio Unilla, the northernmost tendril of the Amazon, heading to public radiotelephone stalls to make weekend calls back to civilization, and then on for a chilled beer, a game of chess or dominoes and some news and entertainment on the big screen.

In the wooden storefront cafe belonging to Ernesto Romero, a stubby cheerful barkeep in blue shorts and sandals, families sat at white plastic tables, engrossed in bullfights transmitted live over a Madrid network. (Rising above the forest canopy at the edge of the town clearing, three imposing parabolic dishes, each scanning 120 degrees of the heavens, keep Calamar's settlers better linked to the world than most relatives back in Bogota or Cali.) Yet just as the action heightened--a flashy young Basque matador had managed to get himself gored--Cali itself intervened. The alert came from the excited shouts of radiotelephone operators outside. The biggest news to hit Colombia in two years was soon roaring over every TV in town, overwhelming scores of throbbing portable diesel generators and the squawking green parrots overhead.

On the screen, General Rosso Jose Serrano, director of the National Police, his steel-gray hair flecked with confetti, proclaimed this a moment for all Colombians to be proud. Colombian President Ernesto Samper mopped his forehead with undisguised relief and announced his intention to sleep for 12 straight hours. Even the nation's current resident scourge, U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette, pronounced it a "great triumph" and hugged the startled Colombian official standing next to him.

It referred to a videotaped sequence being replayed nearly continuously, showing a pudgy, middle-aged man in a goatee and tan khaki jacket seated glumly in an overstuffed chair, his hands shackled. Three hours earlier, Colombian police had pushed aside a bookcase and revealed Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela cowering in a hidden crawl space. For weeks, they had been storming health clubs with Range Rover-filled parking lots, gleaming corporate headquarters of money-laundering fronts, five-star restaurants and, repeatedly, Cali's Intercontinental Hotel, where Rodriguez Orejuela and his brother Miguel frequently commandeered four floors at a time to conduct family business. Finally, they'd pinpointed his refuge, a plain suburban stucco house, and surrounded it with 3,000 men. "This," declared Presidente Samper as the camera cut back to him, one arm around his wife, the other lifting a glass of champagne, "marks the beginning of the end of the Cali cartel."

Hundreds of roadless miles away in Calamar, dozens of beers joined his toast. "Thank the blessed Virgin," exhaled one grandmother. "Finally, something to pop the lid off prices!"

"Amen!" concurred Ernesto Romero, who was pouring shots of Chivas Regal on the house. He then placed the bottle in front of a wiry, moustached man who was smirking at a TV anchor's reference to "this long-awaited victory for Colombian international relations, especially with the United States."

" Idiota. Wait'll the United States figures out what it really means." Luis Eduardo Betancur, president of the Guaviare provincial assembly and Calamar's representative, took a slug of imported Scotch. "Hell, maybe they'll approve, since it's really a victory for free enterprise. No more monopoly controlling the market and dictating what growers get paid. It's just like when they shot Pablo Escobar: Now money'll flow to everybody."

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