The Americas: Colombia Must End Flirtations With Drug Lord
By Rachel Ehrenfeld @ The Wall Street Journal, August 14, 1992
Friday, August 14th, 1992 @ 6:10AM
Three years after a bomb destroyed a Colombian plane in flight — killing all 110 passengers, including two U.S. citizens — a U.S. attorney in New York has indicted Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and one of his chief assassins for the murders. Perhaps now authorities will find some way of bringing Escobar to trial. But justice has been slow in reaching the 42-year-old billionaire, who escaped from his tailor-made prison last month.
His June 1991 surrender to Colombian authorities was supposed to have brought about the elimination of narco-terrorism in Colombia and a curtailment of Escobar’s criminal activities. But some Colombian editorialists saw the arrest and the constitutional change which nullified Colombia’s extradition treaty with the U.S. as examples of the government’s compromising attitude with the drug cartels. In response to domestic and international criticism, Colombia’s President Cesar Gaviria published an article in the Washington Post (June 30, 1991) informing the world that “Escobar’s prison was designed specifically to hold dangerous criminals.” President Gaviria added that he “pledged to make every effort to insure that Escobar does not conduct business while in prison.”
When doubts about the Escobar arrangement continued, the Colombian government took out a full page ad in the New York Times on July 11, 1991 in which it reasserted its claim that it was “taking steps to insure that traffickers cannot conduct their illicit business from jail.” Nine days later, in a letter to the Economist, former Colombian President Virgilio Barco wrote: “The implication that Escobar built his own prison and will now control it with his own guards is unfounded. . . . The guards will be correction officers selected by government authorities . . . and his communication with the outside world will be monitored.” At the time, the U.S. State Department indicated that it regretted Colombia’s decision not to extradite Escobar.
However, U.S. anti-drug czar Bob Martinez said that it was “a positive sign that Escobar was in prison.” Even though Mr. Martinez was a bit skeptical about the outcome of developments in Colombia, the U.S. reaction was guarded at best. Events immediately preceding Escobar’s July 22 escape from the Envigado “resort prison” made it impossible for anyone to ignore the truth of Escobar’s activities: an increase in Medellin-based drug trafficking and terrorist violence directed by Escobar from his “bachelor pad”; the murder of Geraldo Moncada — a genius money launderer — and other targeted “hits” against members of the Medellin cartel who refused to pay Escobar his share; an escalation of violence between the Cali and the Medellin cartels in their struggle for control of turf. Thanks to the cozy arrangement he had made with Colombian authorities, Escobar was able to escalate his role in Colombia’s drug wars.
Nevertheless, he continued to be preoccupied with the fear of being sent to the U.S. to stand trial. His fear was motivated in part by the extraordinary trial in July of Sicilian Mafia leaders in a U.S. District Court in Washington. The case dealt with 1,300 pounds of Colombian cocaine transshipped through Aruba to Sicily. The initial phase of the trial took place in Sicily in March and then, following the murder of Italian magistrate Giovanni Falcone, moved to Washington with Italian judges presiding. This level of international cooperation was unique. And it came on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision which supported prosecution in U.S. courts of a drug dealer captured by agents of the U.S. in Mexico.
The thought of being plucked from his comfortable command center, despite the reinforced walls and anti-aircraft batteries, must have made Escobar perfect his escape plans. Escobar’s escape, according to the daily newspaper El Tiempo, “should cause Colombians to be ashamed of their complicity regarding Escobar’s imprisonment and their capitulation once again to the drug lords.” But it’s not just the Colombians who deserve the blame. The U.S. government must have known something about the circumstances of Escobar’s so-called imprisonment and the various deals that he was able to cut with the Colombian government. Maintaining cordial diplomatic relations in Colombia apparently had a higher priority for the U.S. than stopping what Escobar was doing from his prison. Perhaps yesterday’s indictment marks the beginning of a change in that attitude.
While Colombia still has many brave souls willing to risk their lives to root out this evil, drug dealers and their minions have infiltrated virtually every sector of Colombian society. In this sense, the country has become a “narcocracy.” If rumors prove true, Escobar is negotiating his return to “prison” on his terms once again. This time, the U.S. must not stand by and allow diplomatic niceties to prevent its loud and determined outcry against such an injustice. Colombians as well as U.S. citizens deserve leadership on this issue that rises above petty diplomacy.
— Ms. Ehrenfeld is a research scholar at New York University’s School of Law and author of “Evil Money,” published by Harper Business.