GUAYMARAL AIR BASE, Colombia — Dressed in a pale blue sport coat instead of his usual olive green uniform, Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, Colombia's top police officer, stepped out of his helicopter a few yards from the hangar where three U.S.-donated Black Hawks were undergoing the manufacturer's final inspection.
They were the last of six helicopters promised in 1998, when the Colombian National Police became the first law enforcement agency in the world to fly the military helicopters. Serrano was here to thank the U.S. congressional aides who had delivered them.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 6, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 5 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Colombian general--Because of incorrect information supplied by Reuters news agency, a caption accompanying a photo published May 3 of the head of Colombia's national police, Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, misidentified the weapon Serrano was holding. It was a shotgun.
He was especially grateful because, as the helicopters were flying here, two more Black Hawks were pledged to the police as part of a $1.3-billion aid package before Congress to help fight drugs in Colombia.
For the general's congressional supporters, as for many people in the United States and Colombia, Serrano and the police are this nation's fight against drugs.
Here, polls consistently rank the gray-haired general as the nation's most popular public figure. Serrano kept U.S. anti-drug money flowing in ever greater quantities even after Colombia's previous president's U.S. visa was revoked because of suspected ties to narcotics traffickers, and even while a horrendous human rights record prevented the army from receiving aid.
At a time when U.S. officials trusted no one else in Colombia, Serrano collaborated with the Drug Enforcement Administration to break up the Cali cartel, then the world's most powerful cocaine syndicate.
But now, thanks in part to the effectiveness of the police, the nature of the drug war in Colombia is changing. The fight has spread from the cities to the countryside. The big cartels have atomized into smaller, more flexible networks that are believed to be run largely from Mexico and Miami.
The success of eradication programs in Bolivia and Peru has forced traffickers to move production of coca--the plant used to make cocaine--into the Colombian jungles. That brings the traffickers into partnerships with the brutal, heavily armed leftist rebels and right-wing counterinsurgents who have been fighting the Colombian government and each other for 36 years.
Police, even with Black Hawks, do not have the equipment or training to fight a drug war that is blurring into a guerrilla war. The proposed U.S. aid package, which emphasizes military hardware for the armed forces, reflects those changes, as well as U.S. confidence in Colombia's current president, Andres Pastrana.
Serrano and the police are no longer the only representatives of their country's fight against drugs. At age 57, the general must guide the police into a new role of cooperation with the armed forces and explain that role to his supporters on Capitol Hill, who fear that he is being discarded.
"Now we have to operate more on an international level, to share more information and teach others from our experience," Serrano said during an interview on his way to the airport and an anti-narcotics seminar in Argentina. In the same week, he had already met with the congressional aides, visited a remote village where guerrillas had killed 21 police officers, attended their funerals and cut the chains of a young kidnapping victim after police rescued her.
Serrano's ability to anticipate change and respond has allowed him to survive four defense ministers and two presidents during his more than five years as police director. That's impressive for a kid from the little town of Velez who admits that he joined the police at age 17 because he liked the uniform.
"Serrano is more than a great policeman," said Myles Frechette, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia. "He also has a natural political instinct and he is patriotic."
Serrano has demonstrated those qualities by walking a tightrope held on one end by his friends in the U.S. government and on the other by sometimes jealous Colombian politicians. The only safety net is his tremendous popularity.
In his 1999 autobiography, "Checkmate," Serrano writes that he has no idea why former President Ernesto Samper chose him for director in 1994, skipping over half a dozen more senior officers. He was not Samper's first choice, or even his second, according to sources close to the decision-making.
However, those sources said, U.S. officials made it clear that anti-narcotics aid hinged on Serrano's heading the police. Convinced that Samper's 1994 presidential campaign had accepted $6 million from drug traffickers, the Americans dealt directly with Serrano, ignoring the president and even revoking his U.S. visa.
Their anger with Samper overshadowed what Serrano said is the police chief's greatest triumph: a two-year effort, ended in 1996, to capture leaders of the Cali cartel. Even then, the United States refused to certify Colombia as a fully cooperative partner in the war against drugs.