Bonilla assassination intensifies Colombian drug-traffic battle
American officials are hopeful that the Colombian government's recent declaration of war against narcotics traffickers will result in a broader, stronger effort aimed at halting the burgeoning illicit trade in cocaine and marijuana.
The new nationwide push could lead to increased coordination between United States and Colombian officials in the fight against Colombia's highly organized drug underworld, drug enforcement officials say.
Clyde Taylor, deputy assistant secretary at the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, says the Colombian President's announced new efforts to crack down on drug traffickers indicate a ''heightened commit-tment'' by the Colombian government that might ''galvanize the government to do more on the narcotics front.'' He added that Colombian authorities had been enhancing their drug enforcement efforts since the late 1970s.
Drug traffickers dealing in coca grown in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru are said to operate a multibillion-dollar business in remote areas with private aircraft and boats. They often have the protection of insurgent guerrilla organizations such as the Cuban-backed M-19 group.
President Belisario Betancur declared a national state of siege Tuesday in an effort to shut down the traffickers. The declaration grants security forces extensive powers to make searches and arrests without warrants. It also outlaws the possession of weapons, and the possession of certain chemicals used in the jungle laboratories that process coca leaves into cocaine.
The President's declaration came in the wake of the shooting death Monday of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who was leading a government crackdown on drug smugglers. He was ambushed in his car by two men with machine guns who are reported to have been paid $20,000 by the drug underworld for his death.
The state of siege had been declared previously in four southwestern provinces after several guerrilla attacks.
One such attack in Florencia was thought to have been carried out in retaliation for a March 10 government raid on 14 cocaine laboratories in Caqueta Province. That raid netted 10 metric tons of cocaine and cocaine base valued at
In 1982 approximately 50 metric tons of cocaine was smuggled into the US, roughly half of it came from Colombia.
During the same period, 12,000 to 14,000 metric tons of marijuana was smuggled into the US; 57 percent of this came from Colombia, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
Cocaine has become so profitable for small farmers in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia that widespread cultivation has led to a glut of cocaine in the US. Law-enforcement officials estimate that the street value of a kilogram of cocaine has dropped from $800,000 in March 1983 to about $300,000 today.
US officials have been working to secure greater drug-enforcement coordination with Colombian officials in an effort to halt at the source the flow of drugs eventually sold on American streets.
Officials from the two countries are negotiating the issue of extradition of suspected drug-runners to the US to stand trial on drug offenses.
The Colombians have been reluctant to permit Colombian citizens to be extradited and tried in the US on drug charges. President Betancur, who has said Colombian security forces and courts can handle the problem, has overturned Colombian Supreme Court approval of extradition of Colombian citizens facing US drug charges.
But the murder of the justice minister and the President's new war on drug-runners may have changed this.
A spokesman at the Colombian Embassy in Washington says that with the recent government actions the extradition issue ''would be given more attention now.'' The spokesman added that there is now ''more of a chance for the extradition of Colombian citizens to the US to stand trial.''
The Colombian government is also considering using chemical herbicides on coca and marijuana plants to destroy them before they are harvested. American officials have been encouraging such a program and have expressed a willingness to provide necessary training and equipment.
According to US government estimates, 16,000 hectares (about 39,000 acres) in Colombia are involved in coca production.