By Dettmer, Jamie; Lehrer, Eli
Insight on the News , Vol. 15, No. 5
The Colombian police were cockahoop. In coordinated raids on Dec. 6, 1998, in the northern port cities of Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta, they seized seven-and-a-half tons of cocaine and peeled back a trafficking organization involving two Spaniards who had been using Cuba as a transit point for drag shipments to Europe and the United States. Within a week they also had arrested drag lords Cristobal Galeano, a prominent figure among extreme right-wing paramilitaries in the Andean nation, and Jaime Orlando Lara, who is wanted by U.S. authorities.
Delighted with the coup, Gen. Jose Serrano, the police chief, planned a major press announcement and let the U.S. Embassy in Bogota know the good news. But according to sources close to the embassy, U.S. diplomats weren't so pleased. They were ordered by Washington, after informing the State Department of the busts, to get Serrano to back off and avoid informing the world of the Cuba connection. A stunned Serrano was caught momentarily in midstride, contemplated the request and then decided to go ahead nonetheless.
Now U.S. lawmakers on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee are demanding to know from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright why the strong-arming of Serrano occurred and who gave the order for diplomats to try to persuade the general to stay mum. Were Clinton officials concerned that any disclosure of a Cuba drag connection might undermine the administration's soon-to-be announced decision of easing some sanctions on Fidel Castro's island?
Committee Chairman Dan Burton of Indiana has been characteristically blunt about the suspicion. In a still-unanswered letter he fired off to Albright in early January, the lawmaker wrote: "Sources close to the American embassy in Bogota have informed me that officials at the U.S. Embassy solicited silence from the Colombian National Police regarding a seven-and-a-half-ton cocaine seizure, destined for Cuba, because it could hurt our budding relationship with the Western Hemisphere's only surviving dictator." He added irately: "It is only logical to conclude the reason there has been no official reaction from the State Department on the seizure is that State did not want the air of coddling a ruthless dictator to be muddied by allegations of drug trafficking. …