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At War with Colombian Drug Barons

The worldwide increase in demand for recreational drugs in the 1960s and 1970s prompted drug barons in Colombia to ramp up production, processing and export of coca and marijuana. As it became a key exporter of cocaine and marijuana to the U.S., Colombia suffered from drug-related violence among competing cartels that increased in later years. The U.S. Government intervened with some success to reduce Colombian production and trafficking of drugs to the U.S.  Serving at the U.S. Embassy during that time called for considerable courage; given the need for tight security, embassy personnel were required to drive around in armored cars and take added safety measures to avoid bombings and other acts of inter-cartel war.

Ward Barmon served as the Deputy Director of the Narcotics Affairs Section in Bogota from 1992 -1994 and witnessed the efforts of Colombian President Gaviria and components of the U.S. Embassy, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, CIA, FBI, Coast Guard and Defense Attaché’s Office, to fight the war on drugs. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Barmon in July 1998.

For more information about Central and South America, or to read about Pablo Escobar and the Siege of the Palace of Justice, please follow the links.

“Several [judges and prosecutors] were ambushed in their non-armored vehicles and were killed”

Ward Barmon, Deputy Director, Narcotic Affairs Section, U.S. Embassy Bogota, 1992-1994

President [Cesar] Gaviria (seen left) had been in power for a couple of years. He had a good reputation and was fighting the drug war vigorously, or at least gave the impression of doing so. I think he did within certain constraints. The situation in Colombia, particularly in Medellin and Cali, was a bit dicey because there was a great deal of violence, more than normal.

Colombia had always had, in the last 40 years, a high level of violence per capita, just as El Salvador has had a very [high] level of violence per capita. That was intensified and augmented by the drug related violence, particularly by Pablo Escobar. He was taking out his frustrations against the government by sending randomly detonated bombs into Bogota, and having them set off around the city. He was trying to intimidate the Colombian government. He did not succeed in doing this.

It made life interesting in Bogota, because you never knew when or where the next bomb would go off. This was compounded by the fact that there was a very serious energy shortage. For our first year in Bogota, our electricity was rationed. We would only have electricity for a few hours in the morning and a few hours at night. It was a strange experience being driven home in the dark with the streetlights being out. Some people had generators, but basically, the city was blacked out at 6 or 7 o’clock at night. It was an eerie feeling.

The Ambassador was Morris Busby. He was totally focused on the drug problem. That is why he was sent there…. He spent 98 percent of his time fighting the drug war, leading our efforts, and working with the Colombians. I think he did a good job.

I was deputy director of the NAS [which] was the largest Narcotics Affairs Section in the world. We had about 50 employees, most of them Colombian, but some were U.S. contractors. There were a number of advisors. Basically our job was to assist the Colombian Anti-Narcotics Police across the board. Logistically, training, spare parts, helicopters, just everything across the board.

We basically helped to create and fund the Narcotics Police, which was a very small number of police officers dedicated to the narcotics war with the much, much larger Colombian Police force.

As I said, we had four American officers, who were specialists. The head of the section had a military intelligence and DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] background, so he was ideally suited. He had served previously in Colombia in the mid-1980s. So, he was wonderfully experienced. He and the other drug specialists basically concentrated on working with the police….

I, as the deputy, did a number of things that no one else did. I ran the demand reduction program [which meant] helping Colombia deal with their own internal consumption problem. I worked with the local drug czar, with whom I became close friends.

Their drug czar’s office reported to the Ministry of Justice rather than directly to the President. They basically ran the government-financed demand reduction programs. I am not talking about the department programs or the city programs.
For example, Bogota City had a major program. They coordinated all of those programs. They funneled foreign assistance, such as ours, into the various programs, like the media, against using drugs. There were drug treatment programs. We sponsored a lot of training in the U.S. and also brought people down from the States to run demand reduction seminars, and how to set up and run a treatment program.

Then, some of the other things I did, I worked on a project that we started a number of years before to supply judges and prosecutors with armored vehicles. We had already provided the vehicles, but we needed follow up and needed to keep track of them. The vehicles had been dispersed all over the country [and] some of them were already destroyed [and others] had not had proper repairs…

This was a very important program because it managed to keep a number of judges and prosecutors alive. Several were ambushed in their non-armored vehicles and were killed. One famous female judge was ambushed and killed in her car. She was not using one of our armored cars…

“The politicians, police, military, and other people were either bought off or intimidated or both”

Another program I did, I ran the environmental monitoring of the Colombian Anti- Narcotics Policy project to spray opium poppies. We paid for a Colombian scientist who went out to the field and took surveys of the soil to determine if any damage was being caused to the soil, flora and fauna. He was hired by the Colombian drug czar’s office. However, we paid his salary.

I ran that program which was politically very important because there was a great deal of criticism by the environmental groups [who] were claiming the spraying was killing the animals, killing people, causing abnormalities, etc., in order to try and get it stopped….

This was probably the reason why the Colombian government resisted our pressure to spray coca plants for years and years. I played a small part in working with the drug czar’s office [and was able to] finally persuade the government to permit the spraying of coca, not just the opium poppies.

The Colombians had sprayed the marijuana crops in the 80s with a toxic chemical, and then switched to Roundup, which was much, much less toxic. That campaign had a certain success. There was a great deal of political resistance to spraying coca, but the Gaviria government finally overcame that resistance in the Congress. Toward the end of my tour, they did in fact start spraying coca with a certain amount of success.

I think most of the people that worked in the fight against drugs in the embassy (and that was most of the Country Team) were believers in the effort. Not necessarily that we were going to win the war, but that we had to fight it, and that we had to fight it various ways.

Most of the people in the country team were concerned with the interdiction side. The DEA, CIA, the military, working with the various agencies in the Colombian government, and with the equivalent of the FBI, the Secret Service, and the CIA which is their Department of Administrative Security [DAS], which we funded to a certain extent to help train and equip their people.

Basically on the interdiction side, on the ground, in the air, working with the U.S. military in Panama (SOUTHCOM), and in the Caribbean. Customs (very active), FBI, Coast Guard, everybody was involved. Again, it was almost totally on the interdiction side.

Very few of us were very involved in the other aspects of the drug war, such as helping the Colombians deal with their own problem. Internal consumption of illicit drugs was not a major problem but was becoming worse. We had a special “Narcotics Country Team” that used to meet twice a week and just talked about narcotics issues. We also had a regular weekly Country Team meeting where you had the non-players in the drug area as well. However, the focus of the embassy’s attention definitely was the drug war.

The other factor was the guerrillas who began to feed off of the drug war as well. They expanded into cultivation to a certain extent, protecting fields and labs out in the countryside. So, they began to feed off of these huge profits. You had a terrible combination of guerrillas and druggies, and the right wing militias. The politicians, police, military, and other people were either bought off or intimidated, or both. That combination was very difficult to fight.

You did have some honest, legitimate, and honorable people in the government who either would not be intimidated, or would not be bought off. Many of them were killed or had to leave the country….Although there certainly were corrupt politicians and people in the Armed Forces and Police who had been corrupted, I think we were fortunate in the Anti-Narcotics Police that good people were selected. If anybody was found to have been corrupted or intimidated, or gotten to in any way by the guerrillas, they were immediately cashiered or returned to the regular police. They were prosecuted if there was any evidence….

“They no longer were fighting an ideological war of liberation. They were more interested in money and/or power…”

Many Colombians were somehow able to grow a bit inured to the problem if it did not affect them directly; for example, if they did not have close friends, or relatives killed or kidnapped. I think the people in the cities were able to isolate themselves a bit more than the ones in the countryside. In Medellin, and also Cali, there was a lot of violence, bombs, police being killed, gang murders. Innocent people were caught in cross fires or injured and killed by the bombings.

Somehow, the Colombians had developed this hard shell. If it did not affect them personally, they were seemingly able to ignore it and carry on. The problem was, while I was there, more and more people were being affected, either by the violence, by their children taking drugs, or by this campaign of intimidation of Escobar.

I think it turned the Colombian people against the drug lords, many of whom were quite popular in their hometowns. [Drug lord Pablo] Escobar (seen left) did a great deal to help the poor people of Medellin. He financed housing, health services, and education. He even owned a soccer team. So, he was revered in Medellin by the poor. However, most Colombians were relieved when he was finally hunted down and killed. Certainly, the bombings stopped in Bogota.

There was a debate going on in the embassy whether the guerrillas were still ideological or not. The guerrillas had been around 20 or 30 years by then. The embassy felt that they no longer were fighting an ideological war of liberation. They were more interested in money and/or power….

Washington at that point had not acknowledged that we needed to fight the guerrillas as well as the druggies. Washington believed the two were distinct and separable. Perhaps they were earlier, but as they became less and less distinguishable, you had to fight both. Now we are doing that.

When we were there, there were a lot of constraints to giving aid to the military in particular if that aid was going to be used fighting the guerrillas, because of allegations of corruption as well as human rights abuses. Some of both existed. If U.S. assistance was going to be used to fight the druggies, fine. But how do you make that distinction?

I am sure a lot of our assistance was used for both purposes, as we felt it should be in the embassy. We had to justify our assistance to the Executive Branch, and it to the Congress that the money was not being used to fight the guerrillas.

[At the embassy] we all felt beleaguered to a certain extent. There was tight security. We were provided with armored vehicles. The embassy was pretty much a garrison. There were a lot of security measures and rumors of possible assassination attempts against the Ambassador Busby and other officers. There were also threats of possible bombings against the embassy. Nothing came of that, perhaps, because we were so alert and worked well with the Colombian security people.

It was a pretty beleaguered life. A lot of people were extremely nervous about living there. Before going outside of the city we always had to check with the security office to see where we could drive or fly on the weekends and what the latest rumor was about the bombs. My wife and I were less nervous than most because we had spent two years in El Salvador, which I think was a lot worse.

Most people were very nervous there during their tour, especially when Escobar was setting off these random bombings around Bogota in 1992 and 1993. One large bomb exploded in front of a restaurant only several blocks from our apartment building. An embassy couple had been in that same restaurant a half hour earlier.

[Medellin and Cali] were off limits for most of my tour. After Pablo was killed, it eased up a little. But, no, you did not do normal business in Medellin and Cali. We had closed our consulates there years ago. We had no Peace Corps; they had left the country. So, the only people that went to Medellin were undercover DEA agents, or occasionally the ambassador or some other drug related trip would sneak in with the Colombian military or police, and sneak out. They would covertly inspect some anti-drug operation.

The DEA was a separate branch. They had a large office in Bogota, and a smaller but significant office in Barranquilla, the only other city where we had a consulate. That was the primary reason we kept it open, to give DEA an official place to work. They had a lot of people working on every conceivable aspect of fighting the drug war. They had undercover people, analysts, and their own Administrative Section. They did a lot of work with informants. They were very active…

“We [the U.S.] were a lot of the problem, because we were the demand”

We kept very close track working with the FBI and other agencies because in many instances it was the Colombians in the United States that received the drug shipments. They were the ones that distributed them, at least at the wholesale level.
So we were always working on trying to persuade the Colombian government to reverse their constitutional prohibition against extradition for those Colombians arrested in Colombia accused of crimes in the United States (Escobar’s bombing campaign in Bogota was in part directed at “persuading” the Colombian government not to reverse its prohibition or extradition. That happened several years later under President Samper).

There were a lot arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced in the U.S. We were always trying to figure out their connections back to Colombia. There was a great deal of that sort of work, particularly by the FBI (Legal Attaché), CIA, and by some of the DEA people….[The CIA] provided some assistance in the logistics area and trying to penetrate the drug organizations…

[When I left in 1994 things] just seemed to be getting worse. Colombia was, I believe, the one country in the world that produced all three narcotic drugs and exported them, marijuana to a much smaller degree then in the past. Opium poppy cultivation was something new but was being expanded. Although Colombian coca is not as potent; it does not have the same level of the degree of alkali you need to make cocaine that Peruvian and Bolivian coca has, nevertheless, cultivation was being expanded.

Colombia was processing a lot of Bolivian and Peruvian coca paste which was transported into Colombia. Opium was being processed into heroin and being exported in small amounts. So Colombia had a very diverse drug industry. They were also producing some artificial drugs, amphetamines and other things. It was basically concentrated on cocaine, but supplemented by opium and marijuana production…

We [the U.S.] were a lot of the problem, because we were the demand. There was also a growing demand in Europe for drugs and it was an uphill battle. I think the Colombians finally recognized it as their own problem as well. For a long time, they preferred to say, “It is not our problem; it is yours.”