"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 May 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.


Colombia House

Cali, Colombia — The other day at nine in the morning, the Associated Press office in Bogotá called with news: A big heroin bust, 49 narcos nabbed, police and the DEA involved. Could I cover it? After hanging up, I asked a neighbor where the police academy was, and found myself telling him what I thought would be an interesting story.

His answer was better — he'd known about the bust at seven; a friend had called to tell him "they nabbed a few of the guys."

"They were stupid," the neighbor said as if he were talking about whether it would rain. "They knew they were being followed, and still drove around in their fancy cars. It's tough when you go from not having a dime for a cup of coffee to owning two farms, four cars [the list went on] in a year or so."

Did he realize what he was saying? The police were calling this one of the biggest busts ever. (Later, the billing was dropped from "49 capos" to one "big cheese" — deceased coke king Pablo Escobar's cousin — and "a lot of middle men"). And my next door neighbor had heard out about it two hours earlier, from "a friend"? The obvious question: "How did your friend know?" The neighbor, shockingly glib and chatty until now, just clammed up and grinned. I nodded. The friend was the one that got away.

This could go on, especially in the "What would you do?" mode (— ask for an anonymous interview with the friend?). But this kind of thing happens to me all the time. Everyone around me, and, increasingly, just about everybody in this troubled nation of 40 million, is somehow involved and definitely affected by just about anything that gets into the foreign press as news. And by the many violent tales that don't.

The same neighbor, for instance, works in a pharmacy. And people who work in pharmacies here are sort of like freelance doctors; they get called on to prescribe medication, and sometimes, to administer it. So this particular pharmacist gets called from time to time by the guerrillas stationed in the hills surrounding Cali to treat whatever ails them or their kidnap victims. Including the 182 people who were dragged from a church here last May by the National Liberation Army, or ELN, the second largest of the two guerrilla armies who have been fighting the State for four decades now.

Then there's the friend who matter-of-factly talks about his plans to buy a farm in the north which is "protected" by the paramilitaries. The paramilitaries are the third of Colombia's local military powers (along with the nation's regular army and left-wing guerrillas like ELN and the pungently acronymed FARC), an army of some 11,000 mercenaries (according to their leader, Carlos Castaño), whose sole purpose it is to kill the guerrillas and anyone who "supports" them. (And whom the Army never — or hardly ever — seems to notice, even when human rights groups and just plain folks call to say they've seen armed men who are neither from the State nor from the guerrillas.) And so on.

So what does this show? That the violence (25 times the world homicide rate in Medellín), the corruption (number six in Latin America), and the inequity (more wealth in fewer hands than anywhere in this hemisphere), are longstanding. That is, they predate the massive drug trade that is believed to be the source of all Colombia's woes (believed in the District of Columbia, that is, not in the Republic of Colombia). And, that these problems are really symptoms of a deep, complex set of sicknesses with roots in all levels of society. So when Secretary of Defense William Cohen tells reporters in the Pentagon — as he did two weeks ago — that the $1.6 billion aid package now before the Senate is intended to bring "peace, security, and prosperity to the people of Colombia," the responsible taxpayer who will be paying for that aid has to ask "How?"

First, say hello to helicopters: 30 Black Hawks, for $360 million, courtesy of Connecticut's Sikorsky Aircraft Corp; and 33 Hueys, for $66 million, from Houston's Bell Helicopter. Then, add on two new battalions of 1,000 men each, trained by "no more than" 300 U.S. advisors. Next, let's beef up intelligence sharing. And add some Roundup herbicide, from St. Louis's Monsanto. What does all that have to do with "peace, security, and prosperity?"

For Cohen, Drug Czar (or Tzar) General Barry McCaffrey, and their counterparts in Colombia, peace, security and prosperity are what happens when you have effective drug interdiction. As Colombian police chief Rosso José Serrano once told me, "drugs are the devil." And — once again — the cause of all this country's problems. Get rid of the drugs, and the mafiosos, and you get rid of the problems. And you need the choppers, and the army, because half of the country's 300,000 or so acres of coca (according to the CIA) are grown in the south, which is rebel country. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, country, to be more exact. And since they've got about 15,000 soldiers, and make some 60% of their income from taxing and protecting coca, you need to tangle with the guerrillas before you can get the police in there to spray the coca with Roundup.

Of course, you can't sell the American public on spending $1.6 billion — which will put Colombia in third place, behind Israel and Egypt, among beneficiaries of US foreign aid — by promising to chase down a 70-something Marxist called "Sureshot" and his army of peasants in their teens and twenties. In the jungle. So you say it's about helping America's youth, and stopping the tragedy of 52,000 drug-related deaths on American soil.

On Colombian soil, the plan has generated ... not much debate at all. In March, Semana, the country's leading newsweekly, explained this strange silence: "The subject has all the necessary ingredients so that whoever pronounces (an opinion) may acquire a label. 'and here, labels come with bullets,' said Javier Sanin (Dean of political sciences at Bogota's Javierana University)."

But what discussion there is in op-ed columns and university forums ranges from strident calls for legalization to attempts at making a "better Plan Colombia." The former argument has existed for years here, even coming from the mouths of Gustavo de Greiff — general prosecutor during Pablo Escobar's heyday in the early 1990s — and Colombia's prized (and internationally influential) Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The reasoning goes that: 1) the drug war isn't working, and 2) users need treatment and education, under government control.

But Colombia's socially conservative society isn't ready to embrace this position, and so there are those who try to channel the U.S. aid to what they see as a better end — "to resolve the factors that generate conflict, exclusion, poverty, human rights violations, and a country that can't be governed," in the words of Senator Piedad Córdoba.

Others are more resigned. Francisco Santos, the recently exiled journalist and leader of the growing peace movement No Mas!, says he'd like the sort of plan Córdoba describes, but thinks Washington and Bogotá are "working to meet their own perceived needs."

Meanwhile, arbitrary violence has made the majority of the Colombian people desparate for any kind of action. A recent newspaper poll indicated more than 70 percent of the population favors foreign intervention. If there is such a thing as an average Joe, he wants somebody to step in and take control, since the state hasn't.

Next: Guess who gets to step in and take control? [Next