When George Herbert Walker Bush took the reins from his former boss in January of 1989, he stood on the flag-draped West Front of the Capitol and assured the country he would deal with the drug problem once and for all.  “Take my word,” he said. “This scourge will stop.”  It was a sweeping statement almost foredoomed to failure, but Bush had little choice.  He had been badly mauled on the drug issue in the recent campaign.  As Reagan’s point man in the drug war, he had supervised an eight year effort that tripled the federal anti-drug budget with practically nothing to show for it.  Law enforcement officials across the country flatly admitted they were losing ground to a new generation of high-tech smugglers.[1] But Bush not only failed to stem the tide, he was accused of consorting with the enemy.  When the Senate’s Iran-Contra investigators ripped the sheet off covert operations in Central America, they discovered that the CIA had known for some time about Contra drug trafficking.[2]  They also found evidence of a coke-for-guns cover-up.  National Security



aide Ollie North’s diaries were riddled with sinister notes—“wanted aircraft to go to Bolivia to pick up paste, want aircraft to pick up 1,500 kilos”—and the trail stopped just short of Bush himself.[3]to pick up 1,500 kilos.” Aug. 9, 1985: “DC_6 which is being used for runs (to supply the Contras) out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into the U.S.” July 12, 1985: “$14 million to finance Supermarket [a weapons storehouse in Honduras] came from drugs.”    Then came the revelation that Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega had been on the CIA payroll throughout his brutal career.  When Noriega was indicted in the U.S. for turning Panama into a free trade zone for drugs, Bush was hard pressed to explain the photos of himself and Noriega chatting it up in Panama at a time when Bush had to know the general was up to his ears in the cocaine trade.[4]

Both Dole and Dukakis hammered Bush for his drug war failures throughout the ‘88 campaign, and since that turned out to be one of the few issues that struck a chord, the debate fueled public anxiety, which in turn animated Congress.[5] When a CBS-New York Times poll showed half the people said drug traffic was the number one international problem, Democrats and Republicans alike tried to outbid each other in an orgy of breast-beating.[6]  By the time of the party conventions in August, Congress had offered up some 250 new anti-drug bills.[7]

But as Bush’s triumphant motorcade moved up Pennsylvania Avenue that winter afternoon, the seeds of destruction for his latest anti-drug campaign were already taking root in the Peruvian jungles. Three thousand miles to the south, where the headwaters of the Amazon spring from the Andean Cordillera, an aging Vietnam-era Huey was choppering through the jungle haze, and in the doorway, like a haunting snapshot of another era, a DEA agent in green fatigues cradled an AR-15 automatic as he scanned the undulating landscape. “Where you see fires burning,” he shouted, “that’s where they’re going to plant coke.”[8]  Ahead, half-a-dozen plumes of blue smoke rose from the dense canopy as the cocaleros down below slashed and burned fresh clearings in the jungle.  And as far as the eye could see, dappling mountain slopes and deep ravines, the fields of mature coca plants stood out like lime-colored pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on a green felt table. Peruvian officials estimated they were losing


half a million acres of rain forest a year to these ad hoc plantations.[9]

A thousand feet below was the Huallaga River, and on the slopes above this winding jungle stream grew more than half the annual supply of leaf for America’s ongoing cocaine binge. In the mid-‘80s the Reagan Administration had determined to cut this plant off at the roots in the literal sense, and a massive coca eradication program was launched with the cooperation of the Andean nations. Teams of local police and contract workers—armed, financed, and led by American drug agents—were choppered into the jungles to attack the coca plant with gas-powered weed cutters. By 1987 the team in Peru was demolishing 3000 acres a month.[10] At this point, unfortunately, the Maoist Sendero Luminoso guerilla movement decided to join with the peasants in return for a piece of the action, and they were wreaking havoc with the U.S. plans.  This helicopter used to be based at Tingo Maria, a jungle outpost in the heart of the drug trade. But when the guerrillas wiped out an Army patrol and blew up the power plant a few weeks back, the DEA decided to fall back to a more defensible position. So at the moment Bush was promising to end the drug scourge, the U.S. effort in Peru happened to be in full retreat.

A new encampment was established down-river at the village of Santa Lucia, but like the Vietnam fire bases it was modeled after, it turned out to be a prison for its occupiers.  All supplies and personnel had to be flown in from the coast because everything outside the barbed wire perimeter belonged to the enemy. And since there was no way to protect the workers short of bringing in the 82nd Airborne, the eradication effort was abandoned. The current strategy called for targeting the labs where the coca leaves were processed. The idea was that if all the labs were wiped out, there would be no market for coca leaves and the farmers would stop growing it.[11]  But this theory had the earmarks of a solution dreamed up by bureaucrats in faraway Washington. The Huey helicopter, without refueling, has


an operating radius at these mountain altitudes of a little under a hundred miles, and since there was nothing to prevent the traffickers from going deeper into the jungle, the labs were simply moved out of reach.

The underlying problem was the staggering scale of the place, something that few people back in the States could comprehend.  In the spring of 1988 Ed Meese had taken a helicopter tour of the Huallaga valley and he found it a sobering experience. Cresting the Andes at Cerro de Pasco north of Lima, the Attorney General’s aircraft descended into an emerald ocean between two monumental ranges of the Andean Cordillera and came upon a living carpet undulating to the horizon in all directions. He found it “overpowering.”  He realized then that trying to stamp out this crop one plant at a time was going to be unrewarding.  The Huallaga Valley alone covers an area three times the size of Massachusetts.  Clearly, the answer was aerial spraying. What Meese pictured, no doubt, was a squadron of C-130s wingtip to wingtip raining Agent Orange, but that kind of nuclear solution was no longer possible. Even more modest proposals for airborne weed-killing quickly ran into flak from the Peruvians. The predictable outcry from environmentalists was followed by a flat refusal from the government.  Lima feared, quite rightly, that massive crop eradication would drive the farmers directly into the arms of the Sendero Luminoso. Beyond that, coca happened to be the country’s largest export.  One way or another over 20 million Peruvians were making a living off the plant. And since business was booming, there was plenty for everybody—judges, police commanders, politicians, army generals—even the country’s top narcotics officer.  Dispatches from the State Department were blunt on this point: “Corruption is endemic.”[12]  It’s not hard to understand why.  When an army colonel with a base pay of $90 a month could turn a quick $15,000 by ignoring a single drug flight out of the Uchiza airport, anyone with reform on his mind was almost certain to be disappointed.[13]


Peru’s newly elected President, Alberto Fujimori, thought the Americans were too hung up on a military solution. He said the only thing that would get the farmers to stop growing coca would be to give the them an alternative crop so they could make a living. To the dismay of U.S. officials, Fujimori refused to accept military aid until it was accompanied by economic assistance. Congress finally appropriated some $60 million in farm aid, but any real impact would have called for ten or twenty times that amount, and there was no way Congress was going to drop that kind of cash into the Amazon jungle.[14]

Without meaningful incentives, getting peasants to voluntarily switch crops was a tough sale, even in the face of military force. Put yourself in the place of a farmer who’s been asked to pull up his coca fields and plant tomatoes or rice or beans. Most legitimate crops require tillable fields, fertilizer, and insecticides which all cost money. The crops have to be watered, weeded and watched over. The coca plant, on the other hand, is almost indestructible.  It will grow anywhere, including the sheer face of a cliff, and it will flourish in soil too poor to support anything else.  It has built-in resistance to the local bugs, and unlike tomatoes, rice, or beans—which have to be reseeded each season—a single coca plant can last 40 years.  Instead of one or two crops a year, you can harvest coca leaves every ninety days. As a farmer-friendly shrub, about the only thing that could beat Erythroxylum coca would be a money tree.[15]

Even without these natural advantages, coca would still have been the crop of choice in this remote outback because the Huallaga is too far from the coast for anything else to pay off.  The road to Lima is a grinding 70-hour round trip in second gear. It is cheaper for people in Lima to ship a redwood log 4000 miles from San Francisco than to ship it over the mountain from Tingo Maria.  Coca, on the other hand, almost levitates itself out of the jungle. The buyer comes to you, pays cash, he handles the shipping himself, and there’s no red tape at customs. On top of that, he pays up to $1000 an acre


—ten times what you could get for corn or beans even if you had a road and a truck, which you do not.

In the face of continuing political upheaval and pervasive corruption in Peru, the Bush Administration began focusing their hopes on Bolivia where they had better odds of success.  Bolivia had all the same problems, but the country’s grinding poverty gave the U.S. tremendous leverage with its $100 million foreign aid package. The Bolivians, feet to the fire, were forced to get serious about the drug war, and it was here that the U.S. finally succeeded in getting a significant number of peasants to substitute other crops for coca.  Offering farmers one-time cash payments of $800 an acre to pull up their coca fields, Bolivian and U.S. experts arrived in the Chapare Valley to provide seed, plants, and advice for growing everything from macadamia nuts to passion fruit.  Thousands of acres of coca plants were wiped out and there was a significant and immediate drop in coca production.  Unfortunately, nobody seems to have thought beyond the planting season. One typical group of farmers had been talked into planting ginger, and very shortly found themselves up to their asses in ginger. After accumulating forty tons of the stuff, the Bolivian official in charge said, “Now I am trying to stop ginger production because I don’t know where I will sell it.”[16] The farmers who switched to bananas, grapefruit, and pineapples fared no better.  Some of them managed to get crops to market but at a price too low to make a living. Soon, there was smoke rising from the jungle again. “I think coca is here for good,” said a local trader, “It’s the only product you can grow that you know you can sell the same day and earn enough to stay alive.”[17]

In the months before Bush took office, a cabinet-level document had been circulated that called for the elimination of half the Latin American coca production by 1993.[18]  Four years and $2 billion later, the crop was out of contol. Constant heat on growers in the Upper Huallaga had sent them into the adjacent jungle and now coca was being grown in the valley of the


Aguaytia, the Ucali, the Tambo, and the Apurimac. The slopes above the Urubamba were soon expected to rival the Huallaga.[19]  In all, some 200,000 farmers were growing coca in an area that had been largely rain forest on the day Bush was inaugurated.[20]  Beyond that, refining and transportation had spread into neighboring Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. The cocaine industry in Latin America now covered an area nearly as large as the continental United States.[21]  So to say the eradication program produced no results would be misleading.  There were plenty of results, all of them unintended.

And what of the $50 million base at Santa Lucia?  When it was under construction back in 1988 it was lauded as a model for the future of drug eradication—“a package that can be used anywhere, whether it’s opium poppy or coca fields.”[22]  But hopes for this Vietnam-style drug war bastion were overwhelmed by the reality of the jungle. In a cost-cutting sweep at the end of 1993, the U.S. Embassy turned operational control of Santa Lucia over to the Peruvians.  The following year a General Accounting Office team dropped in for a look, and their report was bleak: half the helicopters were grounded for maintenance, field operations were paralyzed by an ongoing turf war at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, and “the airstrip needed repair because of holes in the runway…”[23]

By the end of the Bush Administration total cocaine output in the Andes had increased fifteen percent. Some estimates placed it in excess of a thousand tons a year.[24]

The business of turning coca leaves into cocaine is a three step process. In the first operation, the leaves are sun-dried, then dumped in a plastic-lined pit with a mixture of water and  alkali.  Then they’re trampled into mush by peasants who stomp them like wine grapes. The mix is washed in kerosene, the water and leaves are drained off, alkali is added to the remaining gruel, and the cocaine alkaloids fall to the bottom.  The residue is coca paste,


which has the consistency and color of putty.  It takes about a hundred pounds of leaves to make a pound of paste, so this process usually takes place near the coca fields.

The second step calls for a more sophisticated facility and greater skill.  The coca paste is dissolved in water and acid, potassium salt is added to settle out the garbage, and the liquid that’s left is dosed with ammonia, which causes the pure cocaine to settle to the bottom.  This residue, dried with heat lamps, is cocaine base, which can be smoked but not snorted.

Making snortable cocaine powder from base is the most delicate step of all because it involves volitile chemicals like acetone or ether that can blow up in your face.  The cocaine base is dissolved in ether, then dosed with hydrochloric acid, causing the cocaine to crystallize, and it rains to the bottom of the vessel. These crystals—cocaine hydrochloride—are dried in microwave ovens and packaged for shipment to L.A., Houston, Miami, and points north.[25]  From farm to lab, it takes about 250 pounds of leaves, worth say $150, to make a pound of cocaine you can sell in the provincial capital for $1500.  But it is in the next step—getting it from the jungle to the streets of Cleveland—that the price takes a spectacular leap from $1500 a pound to $15,000.[26]  This staggering profit reflects the risk involved in moving the product from factory to market, and the handful of fearless killers at the top of this distribution network—the so-called “drug kingpins”—are among the wealthiest men in the world. Geography and history dictated that they would be Colombians.  The country’s position at the top of the continent made it the natural jumping off-place for U.S.-bound traffic, and its access to ports on both the Pacific and the Carribean combined with native hustle to create a hothouse environment for smugglers. By the time Bush reached the Oval Office, one particular gang of traffickers from Medellin was said to be responsible for 80 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S.[27]

Here was a target tailor-made for a military solution. The coca eradication effort might be foundering in the jungles of Peru and


Bolivia, but in Colombia, the wide open network of drug labs and smuggling operations was much more vulnerable. If these outfits could be decapitated—if the men at the top could be neutralized—it would surely do more than anything to stem the flow. This had been the centerpiece of U.S. drug policy under Reagan, and when Bush took over, the man in the crosshairs of Washington’s interdiction effort happened to be a 39-year-old former car thief named Pablo Escobar.

Unlike some of his flashier comtemporaries, stocky, hazel-eyed, moustachioed Pablo Escobar Gaviria drove a cheap Renault and dressed simply: rugby shirts, sneakers, chino pants and a diamond-studed Rolex.[28]  Like his idol, Al Capone, he possessed a first-rate criminal mind, voracious ambition, and an unforgiving memory.  But Escobar’s penchent for violence would have left Big Al agog. The term “ruthless killer” has probably lost some of its impact at this end of the twentieth century but Escobar would give it new definition. On one occasion when he needed to rub out a couple of suspected informers, he planted a bomb on their flight from Bogota to Cali, blowing up an Avianca 727 along with a hundred passengers and crew.[29]

But he had a pleasant side. He built more public housing in Medellin than the government.  His showcase project, “Medellin Without Slums,” put up hundreds of two-bedroom cement block houses, new schools, sewers, streetlights, clinics and sports plazas, capping it off with fifty thousand trees for the city’s barrios.[30] He did okay for himself as well. He had 16 houses in Medellin alone, with heliports, and his country getaway was big enough to sleep a hundred. The swimming pool was flanked by a marble statue of Venus, and a mortar emplacement. The surrounding 7000 acres contained the finest zoo in all Colombia, with camels, lions, giraffes, bison, llamas, and a kangaroo that played soccer. [31]

Known affectionately as “The Godfather,” Forbes magazine listed him as number 69 among the world’s 125


non-U.S. billionaires.[32]  Anyone with that kind of cash would be above the law almost anywhere, but in Colombia he was a law unto himself.  He offered the criminal justice system a simple choice: plata o plomo—silver or lead—cash or death.  He set the stylistic tone for his M.O. early in his career when he was arrested with a truckful of cocaine at a roadblock in 1979. After a brief stay in jail, his arrest was mysteriously revoked, the records vanished, and the two cops who busted him were murdered. He hadn’t seen the inside of a jail since, even though his rap sheet included the assassination of the Colombian Minister of Justice, the Attorney General, dozens of judges and journalists, scores of innocent civilians, and the machine gun massacre of 30 peasants.[33]

The Bush Administration was obsessed with Escobar because he more than anyone was responsible for industrializing the cocaine trade. Prior to 1980 the business had been dominated by individual operators flying single plane-loads or using “mules” to hand carry the stuff through customs. But all that changed dramatically after a bizzare incident in Medellin that had nothing to do with drugs.  In fall of 1981, a Marxist guerrilla group broke into the university and grabbed Marta Nieves Ochoa, the sister of a major local trafficker. Kidnapping the wealthy to finance revolution was a hallowed tradition in Latin America but this time the guerrillas made a fatal error. These narco-traffickers were not your ordinary capitalists. Instead of paying up, they called a council of war and formed a new organization called Muerto a Secuestradores—Death to Kidnappers—or, alternatively, to “their colleagues or the nearest relatives.”[34]  The announcement, handed out on street corners and dropped from helicopters, contained a startling revelation. Over two hundred organizations had been present at this conclave, and each had agreed to donate ten men to the cause. Over the next ninety days their 2000-man hit squad rained horror and destruction on the Marxists. In Medellin, they invaded homes and blew away people merely suspected of involvement with the kidnappers,


including union organizers, old ladies, young children, horses, pigs, and chickens.  At the university, guerrilla sympathizers were abducted and tortured. On February 17, 1982, Marta Nieves Ochoa was released unharmed.  Not a dime had changed hands.[35]

This stunning victory over a well established guerrilla army impressed the whole country, military and civilians alike, but the people most impressed were the traffickers themselves. All of a sudden Pablo Escobar grasped the potential here. It was time to set old rivalries aside. Early in 1982 he joined with the powerful Ochoa family of Medellin, and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha of Bogota, to form Medellin & Compania.[36]  Since Gacha knew his way around the jungles of Peru, he took charge of raw material, and the Ochoas took over transportation, distribution and money laundering. Escobar’s job was to reorganize manufacturing.  He outdid himself.  When Tranquilandia, one of his laboratories on the Rio Yari, was raided by the army a couple of years later, they found an industrial complex in the heart of the jungle with air-conditioned executive offices, dormitories, recreational facilites, a pilots lounge, six runways with hangars, maintenance facilities, and 14 processing laboratories capable of turning out 20 tons of cocaine a month.  The raid also revealed something of Escobar’s ability to penetrate the government.  Only half-a-dozen top officials knew about the assault in advance, but the place was nearly deserted when the cops arrived.[37]

It soon became obvious that there was no way Escobar could be brought to justice on his home turf, and the U.S. was leaning heavily on the Colombian government to extradite him on charges in Miami and Los Angeles. Escobar, of course, hated this idea because he took the U.S. criminal justice system seriously. In Bogota, you might be able to buy a supreme court justice for as little as $50,000, but judges in the U.S. were said to be much more expensive. And there were no “Get out of Jail Free” cards from the Federal Penetentiary in Marion,


Illinois. So The Godfather set out to terrorize the one institution that had final authority over extradition. In November of 1985, a band of heavily armed guerrillas, now aligned with the traffickers by their mutual hatred of the U.S., occupied the Palace of Justice in Bogota and took 300 hostages. In the vicious shoot-out that followed, half the Colombian Supreme Court was slaughtered. By curious coincidence, the eleven judges who died had all voted in favor of extradition. So when the new court convened, its members had a clear sense of mission. They took another look at the U.S.-Colombian Extradition Treaty, found something wrong with one of the signatures, and declared it unconstitutional.

Despite foot-stomping and shouting from Washington, the Colombian court was paralyzed with fear, and there was not a prayer that the equally terrified congress would do anything about it. But in the summer of 1989 there appeared on the horizon a single ray of hope.  His name was Carlos Galan, the Liberal Party candidate for president in the upcoming elections. By all accounts, one of the most incorruptable public figures in the country, Senator Galan was also a man of extraordinary courage. He alone among the candidates openly favored extradition of Escobar and his compadres. Jubilant U.S. officials were holding their breath. With a Galan victory, they could at last lay hands on some of the most dangerous criminals on the planet.  By the week of August 13, the Senator was 30 points ahead.

Throughout the campaign, Galan was receiving constant death threats, and he and his phalanx of bodyguards always took extensive precautions. That Friday night as he rose to address the ten thousand cheering supporters at a rally outside Bogota, he had the sense to wear his bullet-proof vest, but it proved no match for the seven hit men who stepped out of the crowd and cut him to ribbons.[38]

Although Pablo Escobar had been correct in identifying the unbuyable Galan as a signal threat to his empire, this time he had apparently stepped over some invisible line. Galan the


Martyr would ultimately lead to his downfall anyway.  Tens of thousands of outraged mourners surged into the streets demanding justice, and President Virgilio Barco, invoking a state of siege, side-stepped the Supreme Court and re-established extradition by decree. That weekend police and military units rounded up nearly 10,000 suspects—all minor players—but while Escobar and his pals were vacationing in Panama, President Barco hit them where they lived. He dispatched the army to impound all the visible ostentation—the ranches and coastal getaways and private islands the traffickers had accumulated over the decade, and the public finally got an eye-popping view inside these baronial fortresses. Along with all the expected stuff—bearskin rugs and marble baths, stables of thoroughbreds and vintage cars—Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha had even monogrammed his bullets.[39]

The gauntlet had been thrown.  Escobar and his colleagues picked it up. On Monday they issued a press communique saying, somewhat redundantly, “Now the fight is with blood”—signed, “The Extraditables.” What followed was a war of such stunning savagery that both sides were ultimately brought to their knees. It’s probably impossible for most Americans to grasp what the average Colombian went through in this period, but try to imagine a World Trade Center bombing every couple of days. For the next several weeks there were almost continuous explosions throughout the country, with nine banks dynamited in a single day. In September events took an even more horrifying turn when the traffickers began gunning down the wives of police and army officers as they shopped for groceries.[40]

The Bush Administration rushed $65 million worth of military aide to Bogota, including, thoughtfuly, 500 bullet proof vests. But at the same time the U.S. was cheering the Colombians onward, they were pulling their own people out. By week two of the onslaught, the State  Department had evacuated all dependants, and 50 American students were whisked out of the country overnight.  The U.S. Embassy, surrounded by steel


and concrete with Marines at the ready, could have been plucked from another era and dropped off here by that last helicopter out of Saigon.[41]

On September 5, 1989, George Bush gave his first prime-time speech to the nation. Speaking from the Oval Office, grim and determined, the President promised the Colombians he would stand with them in their struggle against these “cocaine killers” and he pledged $2 billion in aide to the Andean nations. He demanded the death penalty for kingpins like Escobar and called for the largest budget increase in the history of the drug war. To emphasize the danger America was facing, the President held up a small plastic bag. “This is crack cocaine, seized a few days ago by Drug Enforcement Agents in a park just across the street from the White House.”[42]  It was a chilling reminder of how this insidious plague touched everyone. But an old-time Chicago newsman like Studs Terkel would note the larger irony.  After a seventy-year battle against illegal narcotics, it was now possible to walk out the front door of the White House and do a drug deal across the street.[43]

In Colombia, the Extraditables responded to the Bush speech with a series of explosions, then promised to turn up the heat. A few days later the mayor of Medellin was gunned down after leading an anti-drug rally.  The following weekend—Colombia’s Valentine’s Day—was kicked off with three bombs in the nation’s capitol that wounded scores of shoppers and left two policemen dead. By Sunday the tendrils of fear had reached all the way to the Washington, and Secret Service protection was extended to President Bush’s five grown children.[44]

Mónica de Greiff, the 32-year-old Minister of Justice of the Barco regime, happened to be in Washington at the time. She had flown in two weeks earlier asking for a quick $14 million to help protect her country’s terrified judges, and she proved to be a hit on Capitol Hill. Whisked around town in a security cordon normally reserved for heads of state, she impressed everybody with her iron resolve. Despite the fact that two of her


predecessors had been gunned down in broad daylight, Monica de Greiff was adamantine. “I am determined that the integrity of our justice system survives this crisis.”[45] The New York Times lauded “her competence and cool courage,”[46] and Drug Czar William Bennett put it more eloquently: “Grace under pressure, poise under fire.” Then de Grieff got a phone call from the Extraditables.  They proved to be even more eloquent: “Remember, you are a mother.  We can kill your son.” As her veins turned to ice, she was given a detailed description of the boy’s minute-by-minute movements for the previous day.[47]  With a glance at her 3-year-old, she decided she’d had enough. On September 21 she resigned her post, requested asylum in the U.S., and vanished with her family into a phalanx of Federal agents.[48]  Her antagonists celebrated by bombing the Bogota offices of all nine Colombian political parties.[49]

De Greiff’s resignation was the first resounding crack in Colombian resolve.  And the average citizen, hunkered down behind bolted doors, understood Monica’s fear all too clearly.  Why should Colombia be forced to pay this horrible price, when it was the insatiable demand of the gringos that fueled this trade?  One surviving presidential candidate—still carrying three bullets in his body from an earlier hit—was openly calling for dialogue with the traffickers.[50]  Said Senator Ernesto Samper, “Let’s not turn Colombia into the Vietnam of the war on drugs.”[51]

At 7:30 on the morning of December 6, with the streets in downtown Bogota full of people heading for work, a truck loaded with half a ton of dynamite blew the front off the secret police headquarters and heavily damaged two square miles of the city.  The concussion shattered windows across from the U.S. Embassy seven miles away. Sixty people were killed outright and nearly a thousand wounded. President Barco, who now rarely ventured outside the walls of his Spanish colonial palace, urged his troops doggedly onward.  “We will not allow ourselves to fall to the bloody tyranny of the narco-terrorists.”  His constituents, on the other hand, were not so sure.  By now Escobar had made


it plain there were no boundaries.  Bombs were going off in supermarkets, hotels, movie theaters—schools—and the squads of combat troops racing through the streets after the fact just emphasized their helplessness.[52]  Then, a major break came in December of 1989 when Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, one of Escobar’s partners, was trapped by security forces south of Cartegena near the coastal town of Tolu.  In a withering shootout, Gacha and his 17-year-old son were cut down along with fifteen of his bodyguards.[53]

Five days later, the United States invaded Panama in pursuit of Manuel Noriega.  This remarkable act of gunboat diplomacy sent shockwaves throughout Latin America, and apparently it got the attention of Pablo Escobar as well. If the gringos could send in the Marines and kidnap a sovereign head of state, what the hell was next? A few days later, as General Noriega was being spirited out of his native land in handcuffs, the Extraditables sent feelers to the Colombian Government asking for a deal. Over the next several months, secret peace talks went on in fits and starts, with periods of calm punctuated by waves of mayhem. Politicians who opposed the talks were shot and killed, and journalists who opened their mouths on the subject were kidnapped.  With one noteable exception, the press had virtually stopped reporting on the drug war.  El Espectador, the valiant Bogota daily, was still blasting away at the traffickers in spite of having lost its publisher, several executives, and half a dozen reporters to the guns of Pablo Escobar. Few other Colombian journalists were willing to put a by-line on anything that even mentioned the boys from Medellin.

In May of 1990, in an election run-up punctuated by car bombs, Liberal Party candidate Cesar Gaviria won the presidential race walking away.  U.S. officials were delighted.  Gaviria, like Galan, was an outspoken supporter of extradition, and it looked like the Americans would finally get their way.[54] But once in office, Gaviria immediately began shading his enthusiasm for the drug war.  In September he ran up the white flag. Despite howls


of outrage from Washington, Gaviria made the traffickers an offer they couldn’t refuse: turn yourselves in and you’ll be tried in Colombia—not the United States.  This move effectively terminated the extradition treaty.

The Bush administration was stunned.  In Colombia they were dancing in the streets. After a decade of rush-hour explosions and mind-numbing horror, they had had enough. The three Ochoa brothers—Escobar’s surviving partners in Medellin & Compania—surrendered almost immediately, but Escobar held out for a better deal, bullying the government for another six months. Once again, the Gaviria administration caved in.  They were so desperate to get El Patron behind bars they simply agreed to all his demands. When he surrendered on June 19, 1991, he was flown to Envigado, south of Medellin, where a special prison had been built to his specifications. After the press got a look at this “jail,” they realized it was not Escobar who had surrendered, but the government. Surrounded by barbed wire, high voltage, and military patrols at the end of a winding mountain road, the comfortable ranchita above the Rio Cauca was clearly designed not to keep Escobar in but to keep his enemies out. Don Pablo had been allowed to surrender with his entourage intact, and they proceeded to set up shop here with the full protection of the Colombian Government. His cell was a three-room suite with an office larger than the warden’s.  There was a soccer field, a disco, and a bar where the guards served drinks to the hit men and their prostitutes at weekly parties. The media dubbed it “Club Medellin.”[55]

The growing fury in the U.S. was echoed in Europe and in Colombia as well.  The headline in El Espectador said it all: “terror won.”[56] The government’s creeping embarrassment was amplified by Escobar’s outrageous behaviour in prison. He and his pals, it turned out, had not abandoned the drug trade. They had simply relocated their operation to this mountain redoubt.  When word got out that Don Pablo had some former employees rounded up and brought to the prison so they could be


tortured and executed, Gaviria finally had to act. A military operation was mounted to move Escobar to a more secure environment, but of course he was tipped off and vanished into the jungle. He continued to terrorize the country for another year and a half before he was finally brought to earth in December of 1993. At the end of the line, the billionaire who once commanded an army of ten thousand was trapped with a single bodyguard. The two men were shredded in a police fusillade as they tried to escape over the rooftops.

It was three weeks before Christmas when news of Escobar’s death was broadcast in Bogota, and the music that accompanied the announcement was “Joy to the World.”[57]  This time the wave of euphoria rolled all the way to Washington.  The President wired his personal congratulations, and the head of the D.E.A. was exultant. “No matter how powerful they are…they are not immune.”[58] But for all the joyful high-fives, there was a curious note of reserve in the press reports. Yes, the major-domo of the cocaine trade had finally been crushed by the engines of justice, but “his death was not expected to affect the flow of cocaine.”[59]  It seemed that the Medellin share of the U.S. market had been scooped up by a group of competitors 200 miles to the south in the provincial capitol of Cali.  The dreaded Escobar had been replaced by a brand new set of masterminds—Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela and his brother, Miguel.

The leaders of the Cali Cartel were as different from their Medellin counterparts as Meyer Lansky from Dutch Schultz. The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers were businessmen, first and foremost—Gilberto was a former banker who owned a chain of drugstores—and they used violence as a surgical instrument rather than a sledghammer, confining their killing to business and avoiding the slaughter of innocents.  While the boistrous Medellin gang was blowing the country to bits, the Rodriguez Orejuelas were quietly buying it up. One U.S. official called their influence unprecedented.  “There isn’t a politician in the Valle del Cauca who isn’t on the payroll or intimidated.”  When a New York Times reporter toured Cali a few days after Escobar’s death,


he found the genteel 400-year-old city of red-tiled roofs getting an instant face-lift.  The skyline, punctuated with construction cranes and garish skyscrapers, framed a jangle of purple neon discos, luxury car dealerships, and streets full of Land Cruisers with tinted windows.  The cabdriver said, “It’s starting to look like Miami, isn’t it?”[60]

In Washington they expected Gaviria to shift his forces to the new front line in Cali, but the orders never came.  The government continued to pretend they were in hot pursuit, and the Rodriguez Orejeualas continued to dine out in public. The truth was, the Colombians no longer had the strength or the courage for another do-or-die confrontation. The horrifying ten-year struggle with Escobar and the Ochoas had damaged the country in ways that would endure for a generation. The best judges, the most incorruptible politicians, the most aggressive journalists, the bravest army officers had all been sacrificed to the war on drugs. Most of the survivors were thoroughly compromised. Given the choice of plata o plomo, they had understandably chosen plata. But once they took the cash, they found themselves on the payroll, and the resulting moral cancer infected everything in Colombia from the top down. Immediately after Ernesto Samper squeaked by in the 1994 election, tapes of two phone conversations surfaced that linked his campaign to drug money. When Samper’s top aide admitted he had indeed picked up $6 million from the Rodriguez Orejuelas of Cali, impeachment was in the air and TV commentators invoked the term “Drogagate” over grainy footage of Richard Nixon.  But the subsequent congressional investigation gave Samper a pass, which simply confirmed the widely held fear that the whole country was slipping into a state of narco-paralysis.[61] “President Samper’s campaign is not the only campaign to receive drug money,” said one Colombian legislator. “Most campaigns over the last fifteen years have.”[62]

The dialogue between the two capitols deteriorated to name-calling and the U.S.Senate was about to invoke sanctions when Samper suddenly arrested the leaders of the Cali cartel. Once


again there were shouts of joy and back-slapping all around, but cynics noted the seizures had a certain stage-managed quality, and subsequent events bore them out.[63]  The tender plea-bargain offered to the Orejeulas left U.S. officials in such a state of vein-popping rage they yanked the visas of President Ernesto Samper and his top advisors, a diplomatic first for the two countries.[64] And so, after twenty years of bloody conflict, billions of dollars, and tens of thousands of lives, one of the Western Hemisphere’s oldest democracies had been transformed into a pariah nation with its leaders on the watch list along with Khadafi and Saddam Hussein—our own private Afghanistan.

The flow of cocaine, however, continued without a ripple. The endless supply of cartels and kingpins somehow mystified officials in Washington who had convinced themselves that the cartel would collapse without its top men.[65]  But the Cali cartel had some five-hundred mid-level executives handling the day-to-day business of manufacturing, transportation, finance and enforcement, and they were unwilling to simply throw up their hands and walk away from a $25 billion-a-year operation.[66]The Cocaine Wars, 288.  In 1981 when the drug lords first met to form Muerto a Sequestradores, there were 223 trafficking organizations present.  So they divided the work among themselves and continued to operate as independent contractors.  Back in Denver the price was still at rock bottom, the quality never better, and fifteen percent of the high-school seniors said it was “very easy” to get.[67]

Perhaps more ominous for the long haul was the wreckage in Colombia. With millions in cash bubbling up from the sewers every day, narco-dollars were totally distorting the economy, and today property values in parts of Bogota rival Tokyo.  Few middle-class urban Colombians can afford homes anymore. If, say, you inherited an old red-roofed ancestral hacienda, you may find yourself confronted with the familiar choice—plata o plomo—a sack of cash worth five times the appraisal or a bullet in the head.[68]  Fully one third of Colombia’s fertile land now belongs to drug barons who have taken it out of production in favor of show horses and petting zoos. Colombia used to export food, now it imports.[69] And then there is the creeping erosion of regard for


the law.   “I enjoy driving but not here,” says writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “Those same Colombians who run red lights and block intersections in Bogota are well behaved in Miami.”[70]

Despite evidence of failure on a scale unequalled since Vietnam, Washington was still insisting that the Colombians hunker down and get on with it. In the summer of 1996 U.S. Ambassador Myles Frichette remained unequivocal. “People sort of bring to the extradition issue a mind-set that existed five years ago—‘extradition equals violence’— without any thought to the fact that Colombia has international obligations. Allowing the narcos to say ‘we will reimpose violence if you reestablish extradition,’ is in effect blackmail of the entire Colombian people by these guys.”[71]  True enough, but the Ambassador’s courage in speaking freely on this issue is probably augmented by the squad of Marines who surround him in Bogota.

At that same moment, the three Ochoa brothers—still facing possible life sentences in the U.S.—were released from prison in Colombia five years after they turned themselves in. They emerged from the ordeal with most of their estate intact. Despite the gnashing of teeth in Washington, they tipped their sombreros and returned to the vast finca on the coastal plain south of Cartegena where Don Fabio was roasting 40 pigs in honor of his returning sons.[72]

The Ochoas’ former partner, Pablo Escobar, had modeled himself after Al Capone and he died a violent death.  The Ochoas modeled themselves after old Joe Kennedy, who made a fortune in bootleg whiskey and hung onto all of it. And like Joe Kennedy, the kingpins of Colombia were planning to send their offspring to Harvard and Stanford to prepare them for leadership in the coming century.[73]



[1] New York Times, “The Traffic in Drugs” Apr 10, 88; I, 1:1

[2] Los Angeles Times, Dec 30, 96, A,10;  A 1987 congressional investigation led by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) found that two of the Contras’ main air cargo contractors were owned or operated by known drug traffickers who reportedly used the planes for smuggling.  Several witnesses told the Kerry subcommittee that the Cali traffickers gave about $10 million to the Contras, perhaps in hope of using rebel airfields for cocaine flights.  At the peak of the Contra war, the CIA had as many as 400 people in the field, many of them former military personnel on short-term contract.

[3] North Diaries, Drugs, Law Enforcement, and Foreign Policy: a Report Prepared by the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and Interational Operations of the U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations (The Kerry Committee) GPO, Wash DC, 89, pp145-147; Warren Fiske, Knight_Ridder Tribune News Service, Oct 23, 94; “North’s Notes Suggest He Knew of Drug_running by Contras”  Oliver North jotted down a series of notes in the mid_1980s that indicate knowledge of possible drug_running into the United States while directing

the White House’s covert effort to arm the Contras.  On July 9, 1984, North wrote that Contra leader FredericoVaughan “wanted aircraft to go to Bolivia to pick up paste, want aircraft


[4] New York Times, Sep 28, 88; I, 1:2 – Bush-Noriega contacts detailed. 1983 photo of Bush and Noriega.

[5] New York Times, Apr 13,88, I,25:4, “Drug issue gives Democrats major lift in campaign. Poll says voters are upset with Reagan Administration’s focus on other priorities in Central America;” May 24, 88; IV,26:1 “Drug problem is becoming key issue in ‘88 campaign; Sep 17, I,9:1 “Dukakis attacks Bush’s war record on drugs;” Sep 23, 88, I, 23:4 “Aides to Vice Pres Bush move swiftly to combat report that prompted new round of questions about when Bush first learned of Noriega’s alleged involvement in drug trafficking.”

[6] New York Times, Apr 10, 88: I,10:1

[7]New York Times, July 10, 88; IV,5:1

[8] New York Times, Oct 31 89, A,1:6

[9]  New York Times, Nov 21, 93; I,10:1 — New coca cultivation destroys 500,000 acres of Peru’s Amazon rain forest every year according to Peru’s National Institute of Natural Resources.

[10] New York Times, June 13, 89, A,9:1

[11] New York Times, Mar 4, IV, 26:1

[12] International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, U.S. Dept. of State, April 94, p120 “Corruption is endemic in all GOP [Government of Peru] institutions, fueled by  very low salaries… Some officials have been subjected to judicial or disciplinary action for drug-related corruption.  The highest ranking official to face such proceedings was the director of the PNP [Peruvian National Police] Antidrug Directorate.”

[13]New York Times, Nov 11, 91 A,6:4 — Army officers make $90 a month.  “When a typical colonel has to drive a taxi to make ends meet, you know you have problems,” a Western diplomat said.  New York Times, Mar 4, 90 IV 88:2. New York Times, Apr 7, 92 op-ed “Corruption and Cocaine in Peru,” Stephen G. Trujillo

[14] New York Times, Apr 7, 92 op-ed “Corruption and Cocaine in Peru,” Stephen G. Trujillo

[15] Michael Massing, New York Times, Mar 4, 90, “Cocaine War… The Jungle is Winning,” p88.

[16] Los Angeles Times, May 21,90, A,1

[17] New York Times, Mar 13,92, A,4:1 “On the Drug Battlefields of Bolivia, U.S. Sows Dollars and Reaps Hate.”

[18] New York Times, Apr 10,88, A,10:1, “Ambitious Eradication Goals and Withering Obstacles.”

[19] Los Angeles Times, July 7,92; World Report, 1, “Coca Growers Prove Tenacious and Elusive.”

[20] New York Times, Nov 21,93, A,10:2, “U.S. Aid Hasn’t Stopped Drug Flow,”

[21] Michael Massing, New York Times, Jan 21,90,M,3, “Drug War: Wrong Forces, Wrong Front.”

[22] New York Times, Mar 4 90, IV 88:1 “The Upper Huallaga Valley is going to be the model for the world,” says an America official helping to implement the program.

[23] “Drug Control: U.S. Antidrug Efforts in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley” Dec 7 94, General Accounting Office, GAO/NSIAD-95-11

[24]  Michael Massing, Los Angeles Times, Jan 21, 90, M,3,  “Drug War: Wrong Forces, Wrong Front.”  New York Times, Nov 21, 93, A,10:6, “U.S. Aid Hasn’t Stopped Drug Flow.”

[25] Drug Enforcement Administration, Coca Cultivation and Cocaine Processing: An Overview, Executive summary, Sept, 93.

[26] James A. Inciardi, The War on Drugs II, Mayfield, Mountain View CA, p88; Los Angeles Times, May 21,90, A,1; National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee Report, 1992, DEA, Sept, 93,p2.

[27] New York Times, Aug 20, 89;A;14

[28] Miami Herald, Feb 9, 87, A1

[29]  Miami Herald, Nov 28,89, A1

[30]  Rensselaer W. Lee III, The White Labyrinth: Cocaine and Political Power, Transaction Press, New Brunswick, NJ,1989, p5,134

[31] Miami Herald, Feb 9, 87, A1

[32] Forbes Magazine, List of 125 non-US billionaires, July 88.

[33] New York Times, Dec 3, 93, A1

[34] Paul Eddy, Hugo Sabogal, Sara Walden, The Cocaine Wars, W.W.Norton, N.Y., 1988, p287

[35] Paul Eddy, Hugo Sabogal, Sara Walden, The Cocaine Wars, W.W.Norton, N.Y., 1988, p289

[36] Rensselaer W. Lee III, The White Labyrinth:Cocaine and Political Power, Transaction Press, New Brunswick, NJ,1989, 289

[37]Rensselaer W. Lee III, The White Labyrinth: Cocaine and Political Power, 170; Paul Eddy, Hugo Sabogal, Sara Walden, The Cocaine Wars, W.W.Norton, N.Y., 1988, 290-99

[38] New York Times, Aug 21, 89, A3

[39] New York Times, Aug 30, 89; A10:3

[40] New York Times, Sept 6, 89, II,7:1

[41] New York Times, Aug 31, 89, “U.S. Officials’ Families to Quit Bogota.”

[42] New York Times, Sept 6, 89, B6, “Text of President’s Speech on National Drug Control Strategy.”

[43] Dan Baum, Smoke and Mirrors, 286-89. It was later revealed that the dealer had been enticed away from his normal base of operations some five blocks away so the agents could bust him in Lafayette Park.

[44] New York Times, Sept 18, 89, I,13:1

[45] New York Time, Sept 2, 89,  “Bogota’s Justice Aide Impresses Washington”

[46] New York Times, Sept 9, 89, editorial: “Courage in Colombia”

[47] New York Times, Sept 28, 89

[48] New York Times, Sept 29, 89

[49] New York Times, Sept 24, 89, A,20:1

[50] New York Times, Aug 28, 89, A,10:4

[51] New York Times, Sept 24, 89, A,20

[52] New York Times, Oct 2, 89, I,1:5

[53] New York Times, Dec 16, 89, I,1:1

[54] New York Times, May 26, 89, “Drug War at Stake in Colombia Vote,” May 28, 89, I:1

[55] Los Angeles Times, Jun 14, 91, A,1

[56] Los Angeles Times, July 2, 91, A:3

[57] Miami Herald, Dec 4, 93, “Crowd Mobs Escobar’s Funeral”

[58] D.E.A. Acting Administrator Stephen Greene, Los Angeles Times, Dec 3, 93, A,1

[59] New York Times, Dec 3, 93, A,1

[60] New York Times, Dec 17, 93, “Drug Spotlight Falls on an Unblinking Cali Cartel”

[61] Los Angeles Times, Jun 17, 96, editorial, “A Great Gift Lies in Samper’s Hands”

[62] Representative Martinez Guerra, Washington Post, Aug 23, 95, A,29

[63] Time, Jul 17, 95, p31

[64] Los Angeles Times, July 12, 96, A,6

[65] New York Times, Aug 13, 95, E,3

[66]  New York Times, Aug 13, 95, E,3 — “Simply put, there are able lieutenants who are perfectly capable of keeping the system going,” said Rensselaer W. Lee, a drug trafficking and organized crime expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “There may be 500 or 600 people wo do the day-to-day work, managing the laboratories and moving the money around.”


[67] Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook, 1995, NCJ-158900, 202.

[68] Los Angeles Times Magazine, Sep 24, 95, “Could Colombia Survive Without This Plant?” p36

[69] Gustavo de Greiff, Jr., Colombian Trade Ministry, Los Angeles; interview, Jan 23, 97

[70] New York Times, Mar 11, 95; “Cocaine’s Reality” by Garcia Marquez.

[71] National Public Radio, All Things Considered, Aug 27, 96, interview with Ambassador Myles Frichette.

[72] Los Angeles Times, Sep 21, 96, “Short Prison Terms of Freed Drug Lords Rile Colombians.”

[73] New York Times, Dec 17, 93, “Drug Spotlight Falls on an Unblinking Cali Cartel”

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