Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Colombia's Barco Leaves Nation with Mixed Legacy President Took Hard Line against Drugs Too Late, Some Say

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Colombia's Barco Leaves Nation with Mixed Legacy President Took Hard Line against Drugs Too Late, Some Say

Article excerpt

AS Colombian President Virgilio Barco Vargas prepares to leave office next week, he can bask in the light of international appreciation.

In the eyes of many outside Colombia, Mr. Barco is the hero who launched the nation's frontal attack against cocaine traffickers after years of official neglect of the problem.

Many Colombians, however, view the outgoing president in a less favorable light. They say his administration has been a mediocre one despite gains against drug traffickers.

"Barco's image abroad is 1,000 times more impressive than it is inside the country," says Ana Maria Bejarano, a political scientist at Bogota's National University.

United States officials in Bogota offer nothing but praise for Barco. The latest results of the international narcotics battle are "fantastic," says one US diplomat, adding that a large part of the credit belongs to Barco.

The official notes the price of coca leaf, used to make cocaine, is down while cocaine prices in the US are up, suggesting drug processing has been disrupted.

But Colombians' view the president's performance through a different lens, one that has been shattered by drug traffickers' violence. Police statistics show murders in Colombia growing during Barco's term from 15,137 in 1986 to 22,768 last year. Among those killed were three presidential candidates, 22 journalists, and 36 judicial officials.

"(Barco) has hit drug traffickers, but the country's violence has increased instead of diminished," says Antonis Suarez, president of Colombia's judicial union. "I would call that proof that the administration has been total failure."

The Barco government intensified a crackdown on traffickers last August, ordering the seizure of properties belonging to suspected drug bosses and extraditions of trafficking suspects to the US.

Since then, the government has made unquestionable gains, especially against the giant cocaine cartel based in Medellin. Authorities have seized traffickers' property worth millions of dollars, extradited 23 suspects, and killed one Medellin cartel leader, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, in a gun fight. Security forces are seizing cocaine at an unprecedented rate - over 69,000 pounds so far this year. The figure exceeds the 1989 total amount of cocaine destroyed.

Though the government has still not captured the cartel's leader, Pablo Escobar, it has recently dealt the organization some serious blows. The cartel's military chief, John Jairo Arias, was killed in a June 13 gun battle with police. Security officials say the organization's infrastructure was further damaged by the recent capture of 18 suspected traffickers in the Central Magdalena River region. …

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