Tuesday, May 20, 2003

The Cathedral at Envigado:

The current trial of Fabio Ochoa in Florida is a small part of a very long and sad story for the South American nation of Colombia. Over the next few days I will post a series of articles I began in the middle of the Pablo Escobar man-hunt. I have resuscitated the set and tried to bring them up to date.

Much of the trouble that Colombia faces today can be traced to the kidnapping of a young girl, Martha Nieves Ochoa Vasquez. Kidnapping was not a rare crime in Colombia during the late 1970's, and so it was not the crime itself that was so notable. The two parties involved were fated to become important historical forces in Colombia's future because of the consequences of the incident. The kidnappers were a leftist guerilla movement named M-19 who were using the abduction of children of wealthy families to finance their campaign of terrorism. Their mistake was to select as a target the sister of a successful drug runner from the city of Medellin, Jorge Luis Ochoa Vasquez.

Ochoa responded to the kidnapping by gathering the most important members of the different drug running operations in the country to form a group that would share the costs of protecting their families against the predation of the guerrillas. They formed the Anti-Kidnapping Movement, known as "MAS" in Spanish, which quickly found and killed the M-19 members involved.

From this initial cooperation came the realization that profits could also be greatly enhanced by the sharing and coordination of all drug-running activities, and the Medellin cartel was born. In command of the overall operation and in charge of political contacts was Pablo Escobar Gaviria. Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha was in charge of security and enforcement - the hatchet man. Ochoa and his brother Fabio were in charge of distribution, while Gustavo and Roberto Gaviria, along with Rodrigo Zapata, were in charge of production. This division of labor proved very effective, and by the early 1980's both Colombia and the United States had recognized that this organization represented a serious threat to narcotics law enforcement.

An escalating war between the Colombian authorities and the cartel resulted in the brutal assassinations of the Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, in April of 1984, and the presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan Sarmiento in September of 1989. The uproar that resulted from the assassinations of these two popular politicians provided the impetus for a major offensive against the cartel: Rodr?guez Gacha was killed in a shootout with the Army in December of 1989, and several members of the cartel were extradited to the United States. With Escobar now in charge of security, the war became more intricate: Escobar was more sophisticated than Gacha, and he was successful in recruiting security experts from the Colombian Army. In 1990 the Medellin cartel pursued a bombing campaign against elite and secret police units, and assassinated two more Presidential candidates: Carlos Pizarro Leongomez was killed by a bomb, along with all the occupants of a 727 jet, and Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa was gunned down at the airport in the capital city, Bogota.

By alternately bullying and placating, Escobar was able to negotiate a truce for the extraditable cartel members with the government. In exchange for a cease-fire, the Colombian Congress passed Decree 3030, halting all extradition proceedings and declaring an amnesty for cartel members who turned themselves over to the authorities. By June of 1991, the brothers Ochoa and Escobar had handed themselves over to the government. As the world was later to find out, Escobar had hardly surrendered. In fact, Escobar had arranged to have his security costs borne by the Colombian taxpayer, since his so-called jail was really his own farm in the town of Envigado, fortified against the emerging Cali cartel by the Colombian Army. From his fortress, known as La Catedral or "The Cathedral," Escobar continued to administer the Medellin cartel, aided by faxes, cellular telephones and computers smuggled into the compound. The legal battles between the cartels and the government continued, with the Army suffering a severe setback at the end of June when they were ordered by the Supreme Court to return all confiscated property. By the end of 1991 a commission had been established to draft a new constitution for Colombia that formalized the policy of non-extradition.

By early July of 1992, the Cali cartel had gained enough power to threaten Escobar, and the government nervously made plans to transfer him to another prison. For Escobar, a transfer from his prison at La Catedral meant a certain death, and on the evening of July 22nd, he was able to escape by taking several important visitors as hostages. In the ensuing political furor, forty members of the Ministry of Justice, the Armed Forces, and the Directorate of Prisons were fired.

It is difficult to describe the psychological effect the Escobar escape had on Colombia. Even though it was rumored that there were luxuries in excess at La Catedral , the holding of Escobar was a symbol to the people of Colombia that the government was capable of prosecuting the cartels without having to resort to extradition. By making a mockery of the Justice system and the Armed Forces, Escobar had politically wounded the President and emotionally wounded the country. It was, however, a country used to wounds of this type.

Drug trafficking has corrupted and distorted the structure of Colombian society at every level. By buying a local soccer team and building a stadium and housing for the poor in Medell?n, Escobar was able to build the political capital necessary to make a bid for a seat in the Colombian Senate. While he was disqualified from that seat by other events, he was still regarded by many in Medell?n as a hero. Allegations of misconduct or illegal activities were dismissed as irrelevant by a large following that believes he was being persecuted for being too successful at his "business." Escobar and the drug cartel had succeeded in twisting the morals of an entire city.

The obvious infiltration of the Police, the blatant control over the Courts, and the day-to-day violence of the drug wars has inured the public to the degree of corruption and distortion that exists. In Medell?n alone, there are over eighty violent drug related deaths per week. For the nation as a whole, over two hundred deaths per week have occurred since the mid 1980's. Because of the level of violence, an entire generation of young people in Medell?n have grown up with the ambition of becoming sicarios, or assassins. Since the average income of a worker is just over fifteen hundred dollars a year and approximately four thousand dollars can be earned with each successful hit, there is no incentive to remain in school or to hold a regular job. Because there is such a high demand for assassins, literal armies of young sicarios are available for hire.

Many other facets of society have suffered. With so many infiltrations, desertions, and outright betrayals damaging their image, an outlaw group of Army officers formed the Military Morals Movement, 3M, which captured, tried, and punished several suspected cartel collaborators before 3M themselves were tried before a Military Tribunal. By assassinating reporters or editors who write about the cartels in an unfavorable light, the cartels are able to exert control over the press.

Through money laundering operations, several sports are controlled by the cartels, and consequently the national soccer league has lost all pretense of fairness. Referees have been killed for being too harsh on cartel teams. Even the guerrillas have not escaped. Due to the success of the MAS in eliminating kidnapping, the guerrillas have been forced to turn to other methods of financing their operations. Logically, some guerrillas have begun running drugs, causing a lot of tension and the formation of splinter groups that reject this form of "corrupt" fund-raising. Some 'political' groups have abandoned their political convictions and turned to outright banditry.

Apart from the corruption in organizations involved in combating the cartel, the influence of the cartel reached into another, more fundamental aspect of Colombian culture. By being involved in negotiations as an intermediary between the government and the "extraditables," and by participating in social reform movements in which the cartel was investing monetary and political capital, the Roman Catholic Church unwittingly became involved in the finances of the cartel. Statements by Father Garc?a Herreros on behalf of Escobar while he was a fugitive sounded more like accolades than positions in a negotiation. The Church has lost its patina of incorruptibility and legitimacy as an intermediary, and has contributed to a general feeling of helplessness that pervades the country.

Unfortunately, the "Zero Tolerance" policy adopted by the U.S. in the early 1990s aggravated certain aspects of the Colombian problem. The tightening of the legal noose in the North led directly to the increase in violence as the cartel began to fear extradition to the United States. The second aspect was simply economic: as the drugs became more scarce on U.S. streets, their price rose, making the business more profitable and attractive. Simple decapitation of the cartel was no longer an effective tactic, since, like the proverbial Hydra, several new heads appeared where there was previously only one. While Zero Tolerance was politically effective within the U.S., it was still only zero tolerance, and not zero traffic. The profit margin for cocaine was still so high that one successful penetration of the U.S. Coast Guard's defenses was sufficient to recoup the losses from several failures. New smuggling routes were developed through Mexico, Europe and Africa that were harder to trace, and more intricate in their planning and execution. The amount of smuggling that avoided interception was still sufficient to maintain the cartels.

Because Colombia had effectively removed its citizens from the jurisdiction of international courts, the only way to affect cartel members who stayed in Colombia was through the international banking system. While the Colombian Army was foiled in its campaign of property seizure, it did not prove so easy for the cartels to foil the legal systems in the countries where the cartels laundered their money. Property and asset seizure in Colombia proved effective in controlling the cartels' activities before it was outlawed by the Colombian Supreme Court, and proved to be the only method of directly damaging the cartel's assets that the U.S. could employ outside Colombia.

How could Colombia extricate itself from these problems? Unfortunately, there seemed to be no internal solution. While the increasing levels of violence used by the cartels to force the constitutional issue raised significant public protests, the approval of the new non-extradition amendments in July of 1991 effectively ended the campaign of terrorism and consequently the public demonstrations. Evidently, the public was willing to tolerate a daily level of violence that exceeded the political will to pursue justice. Because this political will was kept at an ebb by the threat of violence, the cartels were walking a thin line between keeping the politicians cowed and the public passive.

This situation lasted until 1997, when extradition was reinstated, and negotiations began to bring several of the surviving original Medellín cartel founder members to trial in the United States. Pablo Escobar had long since been killed in a shootout with Colombian security forces on December 2, 1993 after his cell-phone location was traced to a safe-house in Medellín. While Jorge Luis and Juan David Ochoa had been arrested and had served time in Colombian prisons under the 1991 constitutional amendments, Fabio Ochoa was re-arrested in 1999 on additional drug charges. The Ochoa family did not enjoy the prospect of their brother following Carlos Lehder (extradited earlier in 1987) into a maximum security prison in Florida, and launched a legal and media campaign to thwart the extradition, but this eventually failed, and Ochoa was extradited in September of 2001 to the U.S. His trial hearings eventually began in Ft. Lauderdale this last week.

It seemed that the Medellín cartel, and its less violent successor, the Cali cartel, had at last been dismantled -- however, what had replaced them was a far more dispersed system of smaller organizations that was still experienced in international trafficking.

Even with extradition, the degree to which the United States can contribute to Colombia's options continues to be limited. Issues of national sovereignty abound in a region sensitive to intervention. The degree of bureaucracy in a Latin government is also a hindrance to U.S. aid, and a help to cartel interference. In the early 1990s, when the U.S. wished to supply the Colombian intelligence community with aerial photographs of the Envigado area, they had to apply to the Colombian States' Council, the Governor of Antioquia, and the Mayor of Envigado, among others, for permission for the flight. The latter two were later found to be on Escobar's payroll. There is still debate between the Colombian Executive and Legislative Branches over the right to grant authorization for U.S. electronic surveillance flights under the new Plan Colombia.

Programs in Peru and Bolivia to wean farmers from the cultivation of coca have had marginal success at best. There is very little that can be done about the intimidation that occurs throughout the countryside, as it is very difficult to fight the drug organizations' policy of plomo o plata, lead or silver, bullets or money, death or bribery. Reducing the demand for narcotics in the U.S., as repeatedly demanded by Colombia, is an American societal problem that cannot be solved within the timescales demanded by politicians.

Drugs remain a formidable force in the erosion of Colombian society. The now-numerous smaller cartels have started to expand into the heroin market, and have also begun operations in Venezuela and Ecuador, where they are slowly buying their way into the judicial and legislative branches of both countries. The guerilla forces continue to use drug trafficking to raise money for their increasingly violent tactics. With the 2002 election of the hard-line president Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian government has resumed prosecution of the cartels and the guerrillas by using both the Army and the Courts, but it will require the combined and coordinated political and social wills of several countries to stop these destructive social forces.