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A Tomb in Columbia

By Raul Zibecchi

[The following article appeared in the December 10, 1993, edition of the Uruguayan weekly Brecha . It was translated and edited by PLN Editor Paul Wright. Given the fact that tens of thousands of Americans languish in prison as casualties in the "War on Drugs" we think this article may interest our readers given the fact that the mainstream media contains little or no serious analysis of US drug policy and it's consequences.]

Finally, Escobar achieved his goal: "To have a grave in Columbia before a cell in the United States."

Surrounded by musicians of the National Athletic Club of Medellin playing his favorite song, "The King," by Jose Alfredo Jimenez, whose lyrics proclaim "but I continue being the king," and accompanied by thousands of followers who sang the praises of their benefactor, Pablo Escobar was buried in Medellin after having unnecessarily exposed himself by making phone calls to his family or having been a victim of informants.

Perhaps the truth will never be known, but what is true is that the most wanted man in the world, pursued for years by the Search Group consisting of more than 2,000 soldiers, fell in a rather simple manner after having escaped his captors on innumerable occasions. The masterwork of Pablo Escobar was the creation of the Medellin Cartel. The DEA referred to it as "the most important criminal organization in the world." The rest of the cartel's organizers find themselves dead or in prison: the Ochoa brothers detained in Colombia; Carlos Lehder in a high security prison in the United States and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha killed in a shoot out with Columbian security forces. The Medellin Cartel which came to import 80 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, began it's decline in August of 1989 when, after the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, then President Virgilio Barco initiated a total war against the cartel.

Escobar, who had a six million dollar price on his head, failed in his attempt to make a respectable reputation for himself and reintegrate himself into Columbian society, even though he did come to hold a seat in Congress. In May of 1984, Pablo Escobar, Jorge Luis Ochoa and a group of Medellin Cartel members met in Panama with Colombian ex-president Lopez Michelsen and the attorney general of president Belisario Betancur. They proposed to dismantle their installations, not traffic in drugs and repatriate 2 billion dollars a year to the Colombian government in exchange for an amnesty and the annulment of the extradition treaty signed with the United States in 1980.

The United States' reaction was radical and they refused to recognize the cartel as a political entity, fearing that with their vast economic resources they would buy the country. Pushed by the DEA, Betancur's government unleashed a vast operation, dismantling 19 jungle laboratories which employed a thousand workers.

In fact and deed, the DEA and American anti-drug strategists boycotted the accord and began pressuring the Medellin capos until they committed the grave error of killing Galan, beginning the definitive encirclement and destruction of the cartel. In these four years the cocaine business completely remodeled itself: the Medellin cartel began it's decline, being replaced by the Cali cartel which today controls 75 percent of the production and export of cocaine.

The DEA and factional powers of Colombia weaved an alliance with the Cali cartel, Escobar's rival and antagonist. After his escape from the Envigado prison on January 22, 1992, the Cali cartel organized and financed the clandestine group Los Pepes (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar), led by Fidel Castaña, one of the most fearsome paramilitarists of the extreme rightwing. Dozens of Escobar's properties were burned down and many of his associates were killed. All analysts agree that Escobar's death will not end cocaine trafficking but will probably reduce the levels of violence.

The marked differences between the Medellin and Cali cartels have made American strategists more inclined to tolerate the latter while trying to destroy the former. As long as Escobar and his colleagues dedicated themselves exclusively to the cocaine business there were no problems, above all, as long as they were willing to finance paramilitary groups to confront leftist guerrillas.

The problems arose when they sought to occupy a place on the political scene, building themselves a social base and threatening the Columbian oligarchy's positions. Because of their marginal social origins, they were never accepted in respectable society. While their Cali adversaries, linked to the ruling class, have been able to build solid alliances with the powers of state without frontally challenging the DEA and adopting a low profile which allows them to stay in business and not enter into open contradiction with the Americans.

So, why the emphasis on the Medellin cartel? According to Alain Labrousse, director of the Paris based Geopolitical Drug Observatory: "The United States does not really try to finish trafficking in cocaine and other drugs... The DEA's policy is to mount operations to either control or destroy them." Cocaine has become an indispensable economic object for the international financial system. "The capital accumulated by the drug trade corresponds with the same capital mass of the Latin American debt and plays the same role. The financial system requires ever greater amounts of fresh capital and narcodollars are like magic capital, it accumulates rapidly and moves swiftly. A clandestine capital controlled by the secret services, which allows the financing of covert operations, as happened with the Nicaraguan Contras case. All the profits taken from the trafficking are invested in the war in Central America through the Anti-Castro mafias in Miami who worked for Escobar and the Ochoas" concludes the Observatory.

In this sense, the death of Pablo Escobar culminates a process which began in the 1980's and which required the Medellin cartels neutralization: the subordination of the cocaine business to the national security interests of the United States, destroying rebellious elements which were difficult to control or too ambitious, like Escobar.

The Cali cartel is preparing to pick up the inheritance. Much quieter and more prudent they have learned from Escobar's mistakes and are prepared to operate quietly, like the Asian heroin and opium mafias. The future scenario is likely to be as follows: the division of labor will allow the drug traffickers to continue their profession, but will leave the hands of the Columbian state free to exercise it's monopoly of violence against the leftist guerrillas while cocadollars continue oiling the national and international economy without interfering with the objectives of American foreign policy, which has won an important victory, limiting the narcos power and subordinating the enormous profits from the business to their interests. With Escobar dead the cocaine business has a brilliant and much less conflictive future.

Social Works (and others)

Son of an orchard keeper, a car thief in his adolescence, Pablo Escobar came to be one of the richest men in the world. Asked about the origin of his enormous fortune, he would respond: "The majority of great millionaires have begun from nothing. But it is precisely this which makes them legends, myths and an example for the people. To make money in a capitalist society is not a crime but a virtue."

One of Escobar's most peculiar characteristics, which he shared with very few of his colleagues, were the works of charity in support of the poorest communities of Medellin and the region of Antioquia. Escobar's star project was called "Medellin without homeless," it was begun in 1982 and consisted in the construction of 2,000 homes for the city's poor families. The project ultimately ended with only 500 homes, but is considered by many to be a symbol of the drug traffickers capability for civic leadership. He also built, illuminated and supplied 80 sports stadiums in Medellin and surrounding communities, he lit the National Stadium of Medellin, planted 50,000 trees in 50 Medellin neighborhoods, he built schools and fixed broken sewers, he lit entire neighborhoods and opened his immense zoological park to the public, with free admittance because, he would say: "the people cannot pay to visit what is theirs." So that the visitors would not forget the origins of his fortune, in front of the zoo's entrance he placed on a pedestal the first airplane that he used to smuggle cocaine into the United States.

The cocaine capos have created a base of support not only above with politicians, bureaucrats and the military, but also below with the inhabitants of the slums. An enthusiastic follower wrote in Civic Medellin , a daily newspaper financed by Escobar, that "there exists in Columbia two kinds of bourgeoisie. That... which made their capital at the expense of the work of millions of Colombians only to invest it in the United States or Europe... and the other class of bourgeoisie, which invests in Colombia due to their concern for the masses' misery. Pablo Escobar belongs to the latter."

In any case, Escobar and his associates were able to build a broad social base faced with the incapacity of the Colombian state to supply the population's necessities. A social base loyal and unconditionally obedient to it's leader, from whom they expected material support and to whom they owed submission. From these sectors came the majority of the sicarios who blindly obeyed the Medellin cartel's murderous orders. In 1981 more than 200 cocaine traffickers, headed by Escobar and Carlos Lehder, founded the group Death to Kidnappers (MAS) to avenge the kidnappings carried out by leftists guerrillas. This group, composed of army officers and young assassins, is responsible for thousands of murders of union leaders and leftist militants, above all those of the Patriotic Union (UP), the legal organization of the Communist Party and FARC (Columbian Revolutionary Armed Forces). The alliance between drug traffickers and sectors of the armed forces fiercely fought the guerrillas of the FARC and the ELN (National Liberation Army) based in the mid-Magdalena valley, provoking a true massacre. The deaths of important political leaders, like the liberal Luis Carlos Galan and UP candidate Jaime Pardo Leal were personally ordered by Pablo Escobar. The murders of M19 leader Carlos Pizarro and the communist Bernanrdo Jaramillo are also attributed to the orders of the Medellin cartel, advised by paramilitary groups, even though in the opposition ranks these crimes are directly attributed to the state's security forces.

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