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World's top cop fights Colombia's war on drugs

General Serrano's book detailing his exploits in toppling drug lords

Two weeks ago, Colombia's government handed the US one of its most notorious drug criminals - for the first time in nine years. And Bogot's chief of police, Rosso Jos Serrano, had a lot to do with it.

After dodging bullets and battling kidnappers and drug traffickers for 37 years, General Serrano - largely credited with dismantling the Cali and Medelln drug cartels - has been an instrumental player in Washington's renewed efforts to clean up crime in the South American nation.

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He has also been pivotal in persuading Colombia's Supreme Court to reinstitute extraditions, after it had stopped them in the wake of massive retaliation bombings earlier this decade.

With its $1.5 billion aid package presented to Congress this fall, the Clinton administration is ramping up its efforts to nab international criminals. The drug lord Colombia sent for trial in the US, Jaime Lara Nausa, is one of 30 alleged drug bosses snagged in October's international dragnet dubbed Operation Millennium.

For his efforts, Serrano has been voted World's Best Policeman two years running by the International Association of Police Chiefs.

"Things are heating up," he said in a recent briefing on the dragnet with Colombia's defense minister. "But we'd better be on our toes. This isn't going to be easy." Serrano was remembering the terrorism of a decade ago.

Serrano has been the target of bomb threats - two in one week alone - and is always escorted by bodyguards. A staffer in US Rep. Dan Burton, (R) of Indiana says Mr. Burton greatly admires Serrano for his "dedication to fighting the drug war ... unrivaled in Colombia, and possibly in the US." He adds that, because of what he's done, Serrano has "been the subject of 40-odd death threats and has security rivaling a head of state."

This dedication has driven the police chief to not only battle drug rings, but to also purge a corrupt police force. He fired 8,000 officers during his five years in office. Still, when asked about the latter, the self-described "country boy" says, "there are better policemen out there, believe me."

Although many people have encouraged him to write a book about his exploits, he had until recently declined. But when Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garca Mrquez asked him to write, Serrano did. The book, "Checkmate of the Millennium," written with journalist Santiago Gamboa, will be published in Spanish in early December. Talks are also under way to publish in English, and movie rights are in the wings.

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But this straight-talking cross between John Wayne and Elliot Ness is unfazed by awards, books, and films. He just wants to win the war on drugs. "Drug trafficking is the devil," says the general. "If we can get rid of that, we can reach peace in Colombia."

Serrano says, however, he can't do it without help from the US. He has openly courted friendships in the US Congress and law-enforcement circles, even causing conflicts with members of President Andres Pastrana's Cabinet, who've accused him of doing end runs around diplomatic channels on numerous visits to Washington in search of aid. A source close to these visits called this simple jealousy.

The general's alliances on Capitol Hill have also earned him the tag of "pro-Yankee" from the guerrillas, one of three major forces in Colombia's ongoing war, together with the Army and paramilitaries. But this "doesn't bother me any," says the father who has two of his three children living in the US "for security reasons."

When asked about the irony of a police chief's family being unsafe, Serrano sighs. "That's the worse part of this whole thing - you can't live a normal life."

But, he rebounds, "it's worth it." The top cop adds that he's unconvinced by arguments against the drug war and for legalization of drugs.

Serrano goes on to say, "Drugs are different from alcohol, and prohibition was different from what we're going through. A drink can be managed socially, but doesn't necessarily lead to alcoholism. Whereas drug users always ascend ... you see that many marijuana smokers go on to shoot heroin, and so on."

At the same time, the police chief admits he sees "the human side" of the drug kingpins. He sits down with them after the captures, and they "talk about themselves."

After last month's Operation Millennium, for example - the biggest drug bust since 1995 - Serrano spoke with Alejandro Bernal, ringleader for remnants of the Medelln cartel and other gangs. "He told me that his twin daughters were going to be a year old two days later, and cried. You know, you struggle to nab these guys, and then you feel sorry for them."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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