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Colombians Brace for Drug War


ENRIQUE SANTOS CALDER'ON, editor of El Tiempo, knows his newspaper is a prime target for Colombian drug traffickers. ``The only real security measure I could take would be to leave the country, to stop writing, to stop speaking out. But I can't do that,'' said Mr. Santos on Friday, the day after Colombian drug traffickers declared an all-out war against the government, journalists, politicians, judges, and businessmen.

Judges in the southern city of Cali, meanwhile, spent hours firing blank bullets at targets in the police department's shooting range. Many received mock funeral announcements on Thursday from a group called ``The Extraditable Ones,'' a name the cocaine barons adopted years ago. Ten judges would be murdered for every Colombian extradited to the United States, the announcements warned.

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Despite such threats, Colombian authorities are maintaining a week-old offensive against the country's billionaire drug rings.

Almost 11,000 people have been detained and cars, yachts, guns and drugs seized since Colombian President Virgilio Barco Vargas announced the crackdown Aug. 18 after a judge, a police chief, and a leading presidential candidate were assassinated within 48 hours. It includes the confiscation of drug traffickers' property and a promise to extradite major cocaine barons to the US for trial.

On Saturday, authorities confirmed the arrest of the son of a reputed Medell'in drug cartel leader, Jos'e Gonzalo Rodr'iguez Gacha, known as ``the Mexican.''

Responding to President Barco's initiative against the traffickers, Washington vowed on Friday to boost Colombia's police and Army with $65 million in anti-drug military aid and equipment.

The aid will allow troops to continue raiding hundreds of properties owned by drug traffickers - confiscating everything from luxury cars to mansions with silk-lined walls. With a top-notch informer, the raids may help the police and Army net one of the ``fat fish'' of the cocaine trade.

But judicial authorities and some politicians said the offensive may only scratch the surface.

Little attention and few resources, for example, have been given to boost the efficiency of the judicial system and improve security for the judges, in spite of the important role they play in the anti-trafficking battle.

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Over 3 million cases are presently backlogged in Colombian courts, according to justice ministry reports.

``We don't even have all of the cases in the highest courts on computers. There are judges even in the Council of State whose files are still recorded on piles and piles of paper,'' a Justice Ministry official says.

Colombian judges must first issue a verdict against alleged traffickers before any property can pass permanently into the hands of the government. Moreover, the Army and police can only raid mansions and ranches if they have a search warrant signed by a judge. Commonly, judges are showered with death threats.

Most likely, only leading drug czars will be sent to the United States if captured. If this crackdown produces arrests, Colombian judges will hold responsibility for trying the drug barons, hit men, front men, lower-level middle men, and squadrons of hired killers. Most do not fall into the category of extraditables.

Despite the huge task facing law enforcement officials here, the US offered Colombia's judiciary $2.5 million in comparison to the $65 million given to the military.

``We feel the government's initiative is important,'' says Gregorio Oviedo, an official from the National Association of Judicial Workers. ``But none of the measures are getting to the heart of the problem - the crisis facing Colombia's judicial system.

The office building of 10 ``public order judges'' in the Bogot'a center illustrates this crisis. The public order judges handle cases considered ``terrorist acts'' - political assassinations, killings of government officials, massacres - many committed by persons linked to the drug barons and their sophisticated network of killers.

These judges are extremely vulnerable to intimidation. Following the murder in Medell'in in early August of Public Order Judge Mar'ia Elena D'iaz, the government issued decrees calling for the transfer of all judges who face tough cases to bunker-style offices in military headquarters.

Before D'iaz was gunned down, she had reconfirmed an arrest warrant against two drug czars and three in the military for the massacre of 22 peasants last year.

But on Friday, a justice ministry official said, public order judges in Bogot'a were still working in their downtown offices.

``Anyone could enter the building where those judges worked with a bomb and be unnoticed,'' the official said. ``I walk into the building in the morning and wonder if I will leave it alive at night.''

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