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Colombian ambassador says country's democracy, rule of law threatened

Those who doubt Colombia is serious about its war on drugs should visit the country's police and military hospitals, where they would see dozens of young soldiers and officers missing legs, arms and eyes as a result of their battles with drug cartels, Juan Carlos Esguerra, Colombian ambassador to the United States, told an audience at Stanford's Law School on Thursday, March 19.

"No country is as committed as we are to this war," he said. But he also conceded that "it probably took more time than it should have for us to fully wake up to the reality. . . . The first people to realize what was going on were killed, almost all of them."

Colombia is now the world's largest producer of cocaine and an important supplier of opium poppies, used to make heroin, as well, he said. "It is one of the most difficult periods in our history. Even the very existence of democracy is at stake and the rule of law as well."

Esguerra's lecture followed a recent vote by the U.S. Congress to conditionally certify that Colombia is cooperating with U.S. anti-drug trafficking efforts, following two consecutive years of decertification. In December, the Clinton administration also announced that it would give the Colombian military some aid for fighting counterinsurgency activities as part of the fight against drug trafficking in a restricted section of the country known as "the box." Administration officials told Washington reporters they were concerned that the Colombian government was losing control of the country's southern regions, where leftist guerrillas, rightist death squads and drug traffickers are major forces.

Intelligence sources claim the two largest guerrilla groups have grown to 15,000 armed fighters and are taking control of some coca and opium poppy cultivation. Right-wing groups also have been reported to be involved in drug activity. The government of President Ernesto Samper has refused to negotiate with the insurgents, who have questioned his legitimacy because of alleged military support of paramilitary groups and evidence that he received some $6 million from drug traffickers to finance his 1994 presidential campaign. With elections scheduled for May, there is the possibility that a new government will take a different tack.

Esguerra stressed the progress that Colombia has made in passing tougher laws, jailing drug cartel leaders and corrupt officials, changing the culture of the police and military, and keeping its banking system from becoming a money laundering operation. The country spends $1 billion a year on the drug war, he said, and only gets about $100 million a year from the United States.

"People have not fully asked themselves how it is that Colombia does not have a corrupt financial system," given the country's central role in production and distribution of illegal drugs, he said. Bankers have devised their own regulatory rules, he said, which "are very painful, but our bankers know there are values and principles more important than profit." Much of the money earned from illegal drugs, he said he believes, ends up out of the country.

Colombia's 1991 Constitutional Assembly banned the extradition of criminals, "an understandable mistake," Esguerra said, that reflected the "paralyzing effect of terrorism" on the country at the time. He was one of only nine assembly members who voted against the ban. Since then, he contended, "we have accomplished spectacular results of a different kind. In the last five or six years, we have put behind bars practically all of the kingpins" in what were Colombia's two largest drug cartels. In addition, he said, Colombia has a new law that allows judges to declare an individual's property rights "extinct" if the property was not obtained or used legitimately.

Police and military forces have destroyed coca and poppy crops on 51,000 hectares, he said, losing numerous helicopter and airplane pilots in the process. The country's police system has dismissed 7,000 officers and instituted new training, which includes an emphasis on human rights. Prosecutors and judges have jailed 44 members of Congress, a former attorney general, a controller general and minister of defense on various corruption and bribery charges. All human rights complaints are investigated, he contended, and a general, for the first time, has been dismissed and criminally prosecuted because of an investigation.

"Everything we have done has been within the rule of law," he stressed, which takes longer, he said, but is essential to the survival of Latin America's oldest democracy.

Esguerra did not bring up alleged connections between military forces and right-wing paramilitary groups accused of carrying out scores of civilian massacres, torture and disappearances. When asked about it, he noted that President Samper had authorized rewards for the capture of paramilitary leaders and said that it was a "very delicate problem. They are not supported by the government but have some sympathy in the armed forces. In the past two months, we have put over 50 [paramilitary group members] in jail."

Noting the growing strength of guerrillas, a student asked Esguerra if the government would pursue a military or negotiating strategy.

Esguerra said various presidential candidates offer different strategies. "The good news is that it clearly is a worry of all of them." His personal opinion, he said, is that a resolution will take a long time because the country is neither willing to meet the demands of the guerrillas nor to carry out the type of "dirty war" that has been carried out in other parts of the continent.

Esguerra has held several positions in the Colombian government including the minister of defense from 1995 to 1996. He also has been dean of the law school at Javeriana University in Bogotá. His lecture was sponsored by the Stanford Center for Latin American Studies, the Stanford Program in International Legal Studies and the Consulate General of Colombia in San Francisco.


By Kathleen O'Toole

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