Narco-rule in Colombia?

May 27, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

COLOMBIA may become the world's first narco-ruled country.

When elections are held in the South American country Sunday (although the president probably won't be chosen finally until June), it will appear that it is the old party lineup of traditional liberals against conservatives. To outsiders, it won't appear to make much difference.

But what is apparently happening was characterized chillingly by Bill Olson, former deputy assistant secretary of state for narcotics, in the April 21 hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

"It is a tale of corruption and penetration of government and society that cuts to the bone of national life in the country. . . . The sea of money upon which the cartels float is becoming the road by which the drug lords are gradually buying their way into Colombian society, and in some cases buying significant parts of that society."

Mr. Olson, who has investigated international drug trafficking extensively, said the cartels "are planning to become major investors in virtually every area of economic activity in Colombia, particularly in the development of oil refineries, paper mills and other major industrial products -- and are spending vast sums on local elections." The cartels, which include the most violent and corrupt men in the world, "are in the process of legitimizing themselves and rendering Colombian institutions willing conspirators in their efforts," he testified.

Such observations have led Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts to maintain that Colombia is becoming the world's first "narco-state" or "narco-democracy." His charges were not diminished when, in mid-May, the Colombian government astonished the world by deciding effectively to legalize the use of small amounts of drugs.

Some of the best journalistic work on Colombia has been done by the Dallas Morning News' David Marcus, who feels strongly that we should remember that the roots of the problem are in the appetites of American drug-takers.

In a recent article headlined "Cartel Buying Officials, Say Police, U.S. Observers," Mr. Marcus said the Colombian government under the respected President Cesar Gaviria had not yet announced whether it would look into what Colombians call "hot money." He said the two front-runners in Sunday's presidential election -- liberal Ernesto Samper and conservative Andres Pastrana -- had denied receiving drug money, despite evidence to the contrary and a newspaper photograph of one of them in earnest conversation with a major drug lord.

During the 1980s, the cartels invested most of their proceeds from their dirty trade in the United States. Only an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of the billions earned in the drug trade returned home. But today, after stricter enforcement of U.S. banking laws, about half of the $5 billion to $7 billion earned annually returns to Colombia.

That is why the cartels are beginning to buy up legitimate businesses in Colombia, and to hide their activities, they are bribing and terrifying local officials.

Little of this would be happening, of course, were it not for the cartels' huge market to the north, the United States of America.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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