Colombia sees 1st result of policy on traffickers

December 19, 1990|By Ana Arana | Ana Arana,Special to The Sun

BOGOTA, Colombia -- With yesterday's surrender of top drug trafficker Fabio Ochoa, a member of the Medellin cartel, President Cesar Gaviria saw the first fruits of a new policy that attempts to end a violent confrontation with Colombian drug lords.

After only four months in office, President Gaviria quietly has abandoned the policy favored by his predecessor, President Virgilio Barco, and approved by the United States, focusing instead on a legal battle.

Mr. Gaviria hopes that a mass surrender will eclipse any opposition in Colombia and the United States. And he hopes that if Colombian courts are able to process and condemn drug traffickers, that his justice system will gain strength.

President Barco confronted drug traffickers with massive police actions and with threats of extradition to the United States.

At least 1,000 people died in the 18-month-long drug war, mostly in bomb attacks and other terrorist acts.

While Mr. Gaviria agrees that Mr. Barco's anti-traffickers campaign severely disrupted the operational power of the major drug organizations, especially the Medellin drug cartel, he feels the war also weakened the government, sources close to the Gaviria administration said.

"When Gaviria came into office, he knew he had to tackle drug trafficking in a different manner, otherwise he would have four years with violence similar to the last year of the Barco administration," said Juan Tokaltian, a political analyst.

Mr. Gaviria opted to find a way that reinforced the power of the state but that did not encourage a resumption of terrorist acts.

In ongoing negotiations with representatives of the traffickers, Mr. Gaviria has offered a way out through new laws and decrees and has dexterously paved the way for a possible mass surrender of major traffickers.

On Monday, Mr. Gaviria's government issued a decree targeted at drug traffickers who surrender to Colombian justice, guaranteeing that they will not be extradited.

As soon as Mr. Gaviria took office Aug. 7, he demilitarized several towns that are known areas where traffickers live and work. He continued police actions against the drug lords, killing Gustavo Gaviria, cousin of Medellin cartel drug lord Pablo

Escobar, but the police actions were shadowed by the government's new legal approach.

When his government issued his first proposal in September, Mr. Gaviria warned traffickers that his government would lash out if terrorist acts were resumed.

The cartel had called for a unilateral cease-fire a few days before Mr. Gaviria took office. The traffickers kidnapped nine journalists in August and September but did not resume the war against the government.

"If they surrender in mass, go to trial and serve a sentence, our justice system would have won," a top government source said. "The important fact is not how long they stay in prison, but that they go before a Colombian judge and serve their sentences."

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