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SUNDAY READER
Killer Drugs Narcotics trade destroys every-day life in Colombia
David L. Marcus

02/26/1995
The Dallas Morning News
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(Copyright 1995)

BOGOTA, Colombia-Back in 1988, a lawyer named Mario Arango wrote a book touting the benefits of Colombia’s fastest-growing export: cocaine.

Titled The Impact of Drug Traffic in Antioquia, it argued that the illegal trade had created thousands of jobs in Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city, and the state of Antioquia. The book became a best seller.

Since then, though, many Colombians have found that drug money comes with a high price: inflation, slippery morals and rampant violence.

Although relatively few Colombians are directly involved in the drug business, almost everyone is affected by the culture of drug trafficking. Drug money has changed the way Colombians live as well as the way they die.

First: the economic effects. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency calculates that American and European consumers pump $3 billion to $7 billion in illegal money into Colombia every year.

Drug kingpins have become increasingly sophisticated, but, as one U.S. State Department official put it, “they’re still like Scrooge McDuck-they like money they can touch, in the vault.” Or assets they can see, such as apartment buildings, office complexes and shopping centers.

Drug money has created a frenzy of building that dwarfs anything in the early ’80s Texas oil boom. The Colombian Contractors Chamber of Commerce says the construction industry is growing at 31.9 percent a year, but some construction executives say the actual number is twice that. Last year, contractors built more than 39 million square feet of offices and residences nationwide.

The boom is good for land speculators, but devastating for the environment. Cranes are raised and lowered over Colombia’s main cities-Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Barranquilla-while jackhammers rip apart distinguished old houses. Blocks that were home to eight families two years ago now house 200-with more cars and more garbage. What used to be a 20-minute commute downtown takes an hour, and noxious fumes from leaded gas clog the air.

Money launderers have pushed up the prices of land and housing so drastically that professionals struggle to buy apartments. At several of the most luxurious complexes, four-bedroom apartments are selling out for $300-400,000 cash-that in a country where the minimum wage is 31 cents an hour. The mad dash to buy apartments fuels more speculation, and on and on. Real-estate agents marvel that the supply of money seems limitless.

The traffickers have also distorted land values in the countryside. Msgr. Isias Duarte, the archbishop in the troubled Uraba sector north of Bogota, last month said working-class Colombians cannot afford small farms anymore because drug lords have bought all the land.

Oddly, the problem is similar for electronics stores and car dealerships-just the ones who might be expected to reap high profits selling to traffickers. Money launderers have snapped up legitimate businesses and trounced competitors, drug agents say. The reason is simple: The money launderers don’t worry about making a profit with a store; they just need to make a steady supply of illegally-obtained dollars and pesos look legal.

One economist has written that the drug business costs $20 million in lost taxes and failed businesses. But Monica de Greiff, the top international adviser to President Ernesto Samper, said the total might have reached $1 billion in the past five years.

Shaky morals

She says the government is prodding universities, think tanks, banking supervisors, Colombia’s defense ministry and treasury to get an accurate figure of how much the drug fight costs every year.

Daily, many Colombians face moral dilemmas. Architects decide whether to build “narco-houses” and attorneys debate whether to defend traffickers and become “narco-lawyers.” One established Bogota painter, who asked not to be named, said he has watched his talented colleagues turn to painting gawdy nudes with golden sunsets just to satisfy an insatiable demand for “narco-art.”

And the fast money and constant violence has made Colombia one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

There’s no better sign of that than the hulking concrete box that is rising on El Dorado Avenue outside downtown Bogota. It is the behind-schedule, over-budget new U.S. Embassy, a reinforced, windowless structure that employees have dubbed “the morgue.”

Fearing a terrorist attack, embassy planners decided years ago that the building should be near the international airport in case Americans had to be evacuated, U.S. officials say. The U.S. government bought a piece of swampy land and paid $8 million just to have it dredged and filled with three feet of crushed gravel, the officials say.

Kidnappings

The irony, of course, is that embassy personnel spend about 45 hours a week inside their offices and the rest away, so that the terrorists will have to strike between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays to make an evacuation possible.

These days, Colombians worry less about terrorist strikes than about the ever-present danger of kidnappings. More than 2,000 people, ranging from grandparents to infants, were abducted in 1994. Since 1980, 69 Americans have been kidnapped in Colombia, according to U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette.

The 10 Americans abducted last year included missionaries, oil workers, a 61-year-old coal company executive and a Vietnam veteran from West Texas, Tom Hargrove, who was working on an agricultural experiment in Cali.

A State Department report says no other country-not even the United States-has so many kidnapped Americans. The report links the kidnappings to guerrilla fronts, including several that are partners with drug traffickers.

Colombia’s judicial system is overwhelmed. The prosecutor general has a backlog of 800,000 cases, including thousands of drug cases. At the current rate, the last one will be reviewed in 2015. But that is too optimistic because every day 76 more homicides are added to the case load.

The police are outgunned. In October, armed men stole $30 million-five tons of currency-from the safes of a government reserve bank. The government called it the biggest bank heist in history, and one magazine said the money was enough to pay a year’s tuition for 555 Colombian students at Harvard.

Hardly any of the money has been recovered. The other day, a Dallas Morning News reporter was chewed out at a restaurant for trying to use a crisp 5,000 peso ($8) bill to pay part of a check-a bill received from a taxi driver half an hour before. The serial number showed it was one of the stolen lot.

Every day, drug traffickers’ fast money and slippery morals prevent honest people from running for political office, testifying in court or simply speaking out.

Maria Sanchez, 39, learned that when she drove her eight-month old son through Cali recently. A new Ford Bronco driven by a young man cut her off. “You jerk!” she yelled out the window.

The man turned around, skidded to a stop and flashed an automatic pistol at Mrs. Sanchez and her son. “Who’s a jerk?” he said. Dripping gold chains, he fit the profile of a traquetero, a drug gang’s hired killer. “I’m the jerk, I’m sorry,” Mrs. Sanchez said.

Air safety

Colombians are just starting to understand how the drug business affects even such a seemingly unrelated thing as air safety.

Working with the cartels, guerrilla groups have destroyed radar units and aircraft navigation radar beacons across the country. While the purpose was to allow smugglers’ planes to cross the country without interference, the reduced coverage has endangered everyone flying in Colombia.

That may have been responsible for the crash of a DC-10 jet as it approached Medellin, killing 120 passengers and crew members on a foggy night in 1992. In all, more than 1,000 people have died in Colombian air accidents in the past 10 years.

A classified investigation by the Colombian Air Force, obtained by the Morning News, shows that dozens of air traffic controllers and airport managers double as drug smugglers. Some controllers use pagers and public telephones just outside the control tower so they can guide the takeoffs and landings of smugglers’ planes without noting anything in the books.

Expressing its concern, the International Airline Passengers Association, a consumer group based in Dallas, warned members not to fly in Colombia. The association called Colombia and India “the two most dangerous places to fly in the world.”

Civil Aviation Director Fernando Corrales promised to fire corrupt employees, but he was killed when his official plane crashed mysteriously in 1993. His successor, Felipe Zarama, denounced Mafia ties with drug traffickers and suspended several airlines he said were fronts for money-laundering. Before resigning last August, Mr. Zarama, who pulled licenses from several airlines he called fronts for money-launderers and drug smugglers, lived under death threats from the air traffic controllers union and drug smugglers.

Rumors have circulated about who really owns several of Colombia’s airlines. When an Intercontinental Aviation DC-9 crashed last month near Cartagena, the coastal resort, killing 51, a TV news report raised questions about the airlines spectacular growth and its low fares. The reporter mentioned the “unclear” origin of the company’s capital.

A Colombian official told the Morning News that Intercontinental’s owner is a brother-in-law of Cali kingpin Ivan Urdinola. Mr. Urdinola is in prison for drug trafficking.

Intercontinental’s president, Alfonso Ramirez, denied the connection. He said the airline is “a corporation comprised of various companies and no single person is the owner.” And the Civil Aviation authority can’t investigate because it is in turmoil. The director was forced out two weeks ago-in a corruption scandal.

PHOTO(S): (Associated Press) The Colombian government blamed the Medellin drug cartel for this car bomb explosion in April at a shopping center in Bogota. Eleven people were killed and more than 100 injured. ; PHOTO LOCATION: Digital.

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