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Dr. G. Davidson (Tim) Smith
Abstract: Does the voluntary capitulation of Columbia's most wanted narco-terrorist, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, spell a victory for the Columbian government or is it simply a sign that terrorism works? Oct. 1991. Author: Dr. G. (Tim) Smith.
Editors Note: Although not readily susceptible to precise definition, terrorism is widely identified as the deliberate and systematic threat or use of violence to achieve an objective. In the modern context, the expression is generally associated with politically motivated coercion. Former President Belaunde Terry of Peru coined the term 'narcoterrorism' in 1983 when describing terrorist-type attacks against his nation's anti-narcotics police. Now a subject of definitional controversy, narcoterrorism is understood to mean the attempts of narcotics traffickers to influence the policies of government by the systematic threat or use of violence.
This issue of Commentary was written by Dr. G. Davidson (Tim) Smith, Strategic Analyst in the Analysis and Production Branch (RAP) of CSIS.
Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the Commentary series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author's views.
Variously described as `the Robin Hood of Medellin', `King Coke', or `the most wanted man in the world', Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria surrendered to Colombian authorities in mid-June 1991. Accused leader of a major illicit narcotics organization known as the Medellin cartel, and suspected mastermind of a terrorism campaign responsible for the deaths and injuries of hundreds of Colombians, Escobar evaded capture throughout an intensive two-year manhunt. His voluntary capitulation was attributed to the government's introduction of revised counter-terrorism policies, including the promise of no extradition, coupled with arrangements for Escobar's incarceration in a prison located, constructed and staffed according to his personal specifications.
Colombians generally welcomed the drug kingpin's surrender. The prospect of ending a decade of narcotics-related violence-violence that alone over the previous 24 months cost more than a thousand lives and millions of dollars-was reflected by opinion polls which endorsed the exceptional terms of the agreement with Escobar. The Colombian media and most politicians there largely hailed the outcome as a victory for the government, which in turn, moved quickly to underscore the impression by means of a full-page self-congratulatory advertisement in The New York Times.
But one of Colombia's leading newspapers, El Espectador, expressed a much different judgement. Criticizing the government's new counter-narcotics policies and arrangements, the newspaper claimed terror was the real winner.
Voicing a similar opinion, Colombia's Ambassador to Switzerland, Enrique Parejo Gonzales, a former justice minister, twice attacked the government's position and offered to resign. Analysts elsewhere have viewed the Colombian actions with alarm, warning that the agreements concluded with Escobar could create a law enforcement mockery. Others share a serious long-range apprehension that the victory will be seen to be Escobar's, not the government's, and will be accepted as a sign that terrorism works.
The modern phenomenon of politically motivated violence-terrorism-has been an issue of world-wide concern for more than two decades. Terrorism continues to pose a threat to liberal democratic states and is viewed as a particular danger to the stability of less developed nations. Based on the experience of the past 20 years, a number of fundamental principles for combatting terrorism have been established. Widely accepted as a sound foundation of effective counter-terrorism policy, they are:
Despite official claims of victory and proclamations of a continued commitment to the fight against the illicit narcotics industry, the reality of circumstances in Colombia cannot be ignored. A series of policy decisions and administrative arrangements initiated by the government of President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo in September 1990 has created an impression that it has contravened all but one of the fundamental principles of counter-terrorism. The same actions have prompted many observers to believe the government succumbed to the politically motivated threats and violence-the narcoterrorism-of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel.
Conflict between the government of Colombia and the illicit narcotics industry had its beginnings in the 1970s. During the following decade three successive administrations battled the narcotraficantes, whose opposition became increasingly violent in the wake of two significant events: the signing, in 1979, of an extradition treaty between Colombia and the USA*; and the creation, circa 1981, of the trafficker organization-headed by the Ochoa family, Carlos Lehder, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha and Pablo Escobar-popularly known as the Medellin cartel.
(*The treaty permitted extradition of Colombians to face criminal charges in the USA. Traffickers feared extradition to the United States because corruption or coercion of the justice system, as in Colombia, would not be possible.)
Infuriated by government crack-downs, in 1984 the cartel embarked on a brutal reign of narcoterrorism. The assassination of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla was the initial step in a campaign aimed at intimidating the Colombian political and judicial systems. Almost three years later, the narcoterrorism developed an international character when the cartel attempted the assassination of the Colombian Ambassador to Hungary, Enrique Parejo Gonzales, in Budapest. Parejo had earlier incurred the cartel's wrath when he succeeded the murdered Lara and implemented then-President Betancur's rejuvenated extradition policy. One year later, another proponent of extradition, Attorney-General Carlos Hoyos Jiménez, was killed, along with three body-guards, in a botched kidnapping attempt.
Despite the cartel's egregiously brutal behaviour, Presidents Julio Turbay Ayala (1978-82), Belisario Betancur (1982-86) and Virgilio Barco (1986-90) remained firmly opposed to the traffickers' demands, especially pressures to rescind the extradition treaty. In August 1989, in what should have ultimately proved to be a disastrous error, the cartel murdered Senator Luis Carlos Galan, a highly popular presidential candidate. Meant as a warning that no one, no matter how prominent or influential, was beyond reach, the incident severely shocked a Colombian public weary of violence, and served to reaffirm the government's determination to defeat the traffickers.
Designating narcoterrorism a serious threat to national security, President Barco invoked state-of-siege powers and emergency measures. In reply, the cartel `declared war': over the 10 months which remained of Barco's term of office the traffickers countered with a horrific spate of assassinations, kidnappings and high-casualty car-bombings, as well as downing an AVIANCA airliner at a cost of 111 lives. Government attempts to apprehend the cartel leadership (recognized as centered on Pablo Escobar) for the most part proved fruitless. The security police, however, did achieve success in a number of ways: i) disrupting the traffickers' operations and infrastructure; ii) keeping the king-pins uncomfortably on the move; and, iii) occasionally eliminating a key individual (i.e. the death of Rodriguez Gacha in a raid).
President Gaviria assumed the presidency of Colombia on 7 August 1990. During his inaugural address, he claimed that "drug-trafficking is the main threat against our democracy. We will fight it without concessions." Gaviria also promised the early election of a special National Assembly for the purpose of amending Colombia's constitution. To his credit, he faithfully kept the constitutional pledge, but his record against the narcotics traffickers has not borne out his initial commitment.
Within a month of his investiture, Gaviria's government delivered an open signal of a willingness to negotiate and to bargain with the cartel. The government issued Decree 2047 allowing traffickers to surrender, confess their crimes and be guaranteed reduced sentences and immunity from extradition. Between November 1990 - January 1991, in response to unofficial negotiations, the government granted further concessions to the traffickers by easing the surrender constraints of 2047. The government's terms eventually became sufficiently attractive to entice the Ochoa family to surrender. But Pablo Escobar continued to evade capture and to manipulate events until he had made satisfactory arrangements for his surrender.
Escobar demanded that a special prison be constructed to house him at a location adjacent to his home town, Envigado, with security provided by the military. (The cartel's assassinations and bombings had killed so many law enforcement officers that traffickers expected to be targets of police retaliation once in custody.) Because of his need to ensure protection against extradition to face narcotics-related criminal charges in the USA, he pressured the government and manoeuvred public opinion into support for a constitutional change banning extradition.
Negotiations with Escobar were conducted by a well-known, widely-popular 82-year-old priest, Father Rafael Garcia. In the aftermath of several meetings with the trafficker, Garcia claimed Escobar was `a good man', who would soon surrender to the `University of Peace'-his description of Escobar's intended prison. Escobar garnered further public sympathy and approval by the calculated release of two prominent Colombian journalists whom the cartel had held hostage for eight months.
The release of the journalists was more than a simple humanitarian gesture. It was designed to carry a clear message to the Constituent Assembly as it neared the end of its debates: proscribe extradition. In mid-June 1991, the Constituent Assembly voted to ban extradition; Escobar surrendered within hours of the announcement and was escorted to his `five-star' Envigado prison overlooking the Medellin Valley. The ban was affirmed 3 July 1991, when the Constituent Assembly officially approved the new Constitution-containing a clause specifically prohibiting the extradition of Colombian citizens.
Throughout the decade of the 1980s, successive Colombian governments opposed the activities of the illicit narcotics industry. Two administrations endured the ruthless violence of the Medellin cartel's brutal campaign of narcoterrorism. Despite pressures induced by large numbers of casualties among civilians and security force personnel, and the high material and psychological costs, the authorities remained steadfast in their refusal to accede to the cartel's major demand-the surrender of the weapon the traffickers feared most: extradition.
President Gaviria's administration, on the other hand, was quick to demonstrate a new and more pliant attitude. Reviewed in a brief summary, the government's actions also reveal its non-compliance with the principles of counter-terrorism.
The issuance, per se, of Decree 2047 was a significant change from the unyielding resistance of the past. An official overture to the traffickers, the decree and its terms represented a major concession on the part of the government. In conjunction, the stipulated assurance of immunity from extradition appeared as an act of surrender to a principal trafficker demand. When associated with the later decision of the Constituent Assembly, the coercive influence of Escobar and the Medellin cartel would seem difficult to deny.
The original decree, 2047, and its terms, constituted both concessions and an act of surrender to the traffickers' demands. The government made further concessions by amending the initial offer to the traffickers. The Envigado prison arrangements, however, demonstrated the outcome of a deal between Escobar and the government. Individually or collectively, the government's actions, whereby it arbitrarily changed the laws and modified sentencing policies to suit conditions imposed by the traffickers, must be considered a marginalization of the rule of law in Colombia.
Escobar cleverly hijacked the political and moral agenda during the months between the government's announcement of Decree 2047 in September 1990 and his surrender in June 1991. He did so by means of his accepted methods of intimidation and corruption, abetted by a carefully executed campaign designed to convince Colombians he was "a warm-hearted godfather seeking peace for his people." His negotiations with Father Garcia, combined with the carefully-timed release of two prominent journalists held captive for more than 200 days, served to sway public opinion in his favour. Escobar's ability to remain free allowed him to continue his intimidation-corruption-cum-public-relations activities, thereby retaining control of the political agenda by assuring that peace could only be achieved in response to his demands.
President Gaviria and his government asserted that negotiations and agreements with the traffickers were undertaken in the interest of securing peace for Colombia. The lenient terms offered by the government were intended as an inducement to obtain the surrender of the cartel leadership, in an effort to bring the traffickers to trial. If the government is successful in achieving its stated goal, the action will represent the one fundamental principle of counter-terrorism upheld by the government. Much doubt exists, however, that Escobar and his colleagues will receive anything more than token sentences.
In fairness, President Gaviria and his government came to power at a difficult time for Colombia. The nation was suffering from a decade of narcotics-related violence, compounded by the Medellin cartel's vicious campaign of narcoterrorism. The economy was distressed, in part because the violence had badly hurt the tourist trade and in part because the same violence was driving away foreign investment. Narcoterrorism, and on-going insurgent guerrilla campaigns which had plagued the nation for more than a decade, had combined to tarnish severely the nation's reputation abroad. Colombians, themselves, were tired of the shootings, bombings and kidnappings and were eager for a peaceful resolution to the struggles.
The Colombian government has succeeded in moving toward the goal of achieving peace within the nation. A number of powerful traffickers and their colleagues are in prison, ostensibly awaiting trial. Public opinion polls show a large majority of Colombians support the government's policies toward the traffickers and favour the terms of the new Constitution. The government claims it has won a substantial victory over the narcotraficantes, and that constitutional changes represent a significant shift toward a more truly democratic society where elections and the rule of law have real meaning.
Many observers, however, disagree and have openly declared their fears that the government gave away too much to the traffickers in its eagerness to achieve peace. Certainly, in all but one instance, the government's actions appear unorthodox in their contravention of the fundamental principles of counter-terrorism. The government recently underscored those actions by yet another apparent act of surrender to a demand by Pablo Escobar: President Gaviria removed General Miguel Maza Marquez, the long-time head of Colombia's security police, Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS)-the agency which had been most effective in combatting the traffickers.
Despite promises by the Ochoa family and Escobar to end their illegal activities and not to pursue their operations from prison, indications exist that the promises are not being kept. Rumours suggest the cartel leaders are continuing to direct the activities of their trafficking empire from within Envigado prison. It must be hoped that the government has not erred in its decision to opt for nothing more in return from the traffickers than their agreement to surrender.
The Gaviria government has gambled it can solve the politically motivated violence-the narcoterrorism-of the Medellin cartel by compromising established counter-terrorism principles. It has risked its success on a policy of negotiated surrender, linked to the prospect of lenient sentences and the assurance that traffickers would be tried in Colombia. In conjunction, the government believes the terms of its new Constitution offer the means to achieve the much-needed strengthening of the Colombian judicial system.
Should the government's program fail, the consequences could seriously endanger democracy in Colombia and could lead to even bloodier struggles for power. Much depends upon the outcome of Escobar's trial and the government's ability effectively to continue the struggle against the influence of the traffickers. International co-operation is recognized as a key ingredient to success in combatting terrorism. It would appear that the best interests of democratic states around the world would be served through moral, financial and material support of the efforts of the Gaviria government to overcome the fundamental security threat posed by the illicit narcotics industry.
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