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Investigating the Drug War in Colombia

Aired December 22, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the international war on drugs. Those who are fighting it say it's failed. So what is the solution? We have an exclusive, in-depth look at one of the cocaine capitals.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

Forty years after the U.S. President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs, the fight is far from over. The drug trade fueled insurgencies and global instability from Asia to Afghanistan and Latin America. And that one remains the world's largest exporter of cocaine and cannabis.

In Colombia, President Uribe is successfully rolling back left-wing insurgents and disarming right-wing militias. Violence, mass murders, and kidnappings are down. But parts of the country remain hostage to the vicious, high-stakes drug trade.

The former presidents of Colombia, Brazil and Mexico say it's time for a new approach, and I'll talk to one of them, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia.

But first, CNN's Karl Penhaul has this special report from Medellin, which is now attracting business and tourists, but in the city's violent corners, drug gangs are engaged in a bloody turf war.


KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A father shakes his fist at Heaven and asks, "Why?" That's his son in the coffin, blown away by a gang on the payroll of Colombian cocaine capos. Seventeen-year-old Juan Guillermo Lora (ph) was at the school gate. A bullet in the head, another in the neck. His aunt says he wasn't part of any gang.

MARIA DEBORAH OSPINA, AUNT OF MURDER VICTIM (through translator): He wanted to be somebody in life and help his family progress. He wanted to study at university, become a great lawyer, and win justice.

PENHAUL: A couple of cops who escort us into this hillside slum tell a different tale. They say Lora (ph) was from a bad family and his brother is doing a prison stretch for murder. Fallen gang fighter or innocent victim?

His aunt blames his murder on turf wars that are once again gripping Medellin.

OSPINA (through translator): I guess he was killed because of the gang wars. You cannot go into certain places and cannot cross certain lines. They hit you where it hurts the most: They kill your family.

PENHAUL: Many at the wake do appear to be gang members. Some are packing guns. Mourners hoist the casket, then carry off their dead down narrow alleys.

I head out across Medellin to try and figure out why drug violence is spiraling. High up here in the northeastern commune, there's a statue of the Virgin Mary of Calm (ph). Catholics believe she protects souls in purgatory. Maybe they should have put up an effigy of Cerberus, the hound that guards the gates of Hell.

Life here revolves around two things: guns and drugs.

"CHIEF," MEDELLIN GANG LEADER (through translator): Here, it's the rules of the street. The rules don't change. They will always be the rules, here or anywhere else.

PENHAUL: He's the gang leader. They call him Chief. My sources say he's made so many enemies he can't step outside his patch.

"CHIEF" (through translator): We're all human, and we all get afraid. I'm afraid my life will end suddenly before I can do anything to get out of this war.

PENHAUL: "Everything comes to an end," chirp the lyrics of a salsa classic on the radio. But for now, there's work to be down. Gang members roll marijuana or pose with their firepower. By nightfall, they'll have 1,000 joints to deal on street corners they control.

Colombian authorities say drug-peddling in Medellin is worth $6 million a month. Cartel capos believe that's worth fighting for. The day before we met, Chief buried one of his own.


"CHIEF" (through translator): I couldn't bear to look in the coffin. They killed him downtown. We don't know who did it, but a girlfriend of his took him down there. So the day they brought his body back up here, we killed that crack-head bitch.

PENHAUL: That conversation is cut short with news the drug boss who sponsors this gang is sent to delivery. Lookouts are posted in case police or rivals try to muscle in.

(on-screen): So the gang members are telling us that the kilo of cocaine that they've been waiting for all afternoon has now arrived, so we're going to follow them to a different location and see how they cut it.

(voice-over): They've raided Mom's kitchen for the tools they need. The job now: to break down a brick of pure cocaine and cut it with caffeine and dentist's anesthetic. They sell a gram for as little as a dollar, depending on how heavily they cut it.

Business mixes with pleasure. Their biggest pleasure: inhaling the cloud of pulverized cocaine from the liquidizer.

(on-screen): So they've been cutting cocaine now with a fruit juicer for about the last hour. And there's dust going everywhere. Everybody's as high as a kite. They've been smoking marijuana. They've been doing lines of cocaine. They've been drinking beer. So now might be a good time to leave.

(voice-over): Before I go, I'm curious if Chief ever thought of getting out of the drugs, the guns, and the violence.

"CHIEF" (through translator): I dream of sailing away in a sailboat, alone and far away.

PENHAUL: But before he can live that dream, he first has to survive the nightmare of a cocaine war.

Karl Penhaul, CNN, Medellin, Colombia.


AMANPOUR: So Karl Penhaul had an extraordinary opportunity to see what's going on there. And joining me right now to talk more about it from Bogota, Colombia, the former president, Cesar Gaviria. He was elected in 1990 and served as his country's head of state for four years.

Thank you so much for joining us. You've just presented a report about the effects of drugs and democracy, and you've concluded, along with former presidents from Brazil and Mexico, Mr. Gaviria, that the drug war is not working. What are your advice -- what is your advice on how to make it work?

CESAR GAVIRIA, FORMER COLOMBIAN PRESIDENT: Well, there are many things that can be done. I don't have a solution, but what I am now certain is that just putting all consumers in jail, as the U.S. does and some of the Latin American countries did until quite recently, is not -- is not a solution.

The -- the -- the Plan Colombia has been very successful in helping the Colombian government to deal with problems of security, although there are still a lot of problems in security, you show in -- in Medellin. But - - but Colombia has not been successful in reducing the flow of drugs through the U.S. or Latin America or Europe.

AMANPOUR: So what is...

GAVIRIA: It hasn't worked.

AMANPOUR: As -- as you say...

GAVIRIA: You have to reduce consumption.

AMANPOUR: As you say, you have to reduce consumption and it hasn't worked, but you're talking about less focus on interdiction, I think, more focus on going after organized crime?

GAVIRIA: Yes. Yes, I think -- I think -- well, for Latin America, it's clear it has to move to consider the problem of consumption of drugs a health problem and helping addicts, like the U.S. -- all the European countries does. The policy of putting people in jail because they consume drugs doesn't seem to be working anywhere, not in the U.S.

The U.S. has more than 500,000 people in jail for narcotrafficking or narcotrafficking-related issues, and it's more than all the people in jail in Europe.

AMANPOUR: But let me ask you: One of the lines and one of the things that one of those drug dealers told Karl Penhaul about Colombia, the streets that he's working, is that the rules don't change, the rules are of the street, and they will always be the same rules.

How do you attack the rules of the street? How do you change the dynamic that leads to this constant flow?

GAVIRIA: What you see in the streets of Medellin is the same in the streets of Sao Pablo or Rio or Mexico City or most big Latin cities. It's happening just the same. And even U.S. cities, I mean, violence -- violence is going up in relation to drugs everywhere, everywhere.


So you need to -- first, to try to see -- to separate the problem of consumption of drugs and not think you have too many resources and so much capabilities, so just putting people in jail will solve the problem. No. It doesn't work.

In the -- in -- in Medellin, you need to -- to work a lot with people to take them out of drugs, of consumption of drugs or the impact of these gangs. And -- and the U.S. has to change its policy. It has four times the consumption of Europe. And in Europe, they don't put people in jail. They all help them. Only probably Sweden puts people in jail. But no -- no other country does that. They help consumers. They really help -- they -- yes?

AMANPOUR: Mr. Gaviria, in terms of your report, it was also about the drug trade and -- and its effect on democracy. How is that affecting democracy in some of the Latin American countries?

GAVIRIA: Oh, in -- in a very significant way. I mean, only if you see the extraordinary effort that Mexico is doing to -- to -- to try to confront the drug trade, the damage on the judicial system, the damage on the police and the -- and the military, all that is a significant cost for democracy. Corruption, you know, when -- when these -- these -- when narcotrafficking start to grow as a consumption problem, immediately you see kidnappings and extortion and many other kinds.

So -- so -- so if the U.S. doesn't make an extraordinary effort to reduce consumption, moving more resources from -- from the jail system and the judicial system, to -- to treatment and through -- to deal with the problem with education and campaigns, instead of putting so many people in jail, is going to be very difficult.

I mean, the Mexicans probably in a few years will be able to deal a little better with the problems of security. But the flow of drugs will -- will -- will keep growing...

AMANPOUR: And when you look at it...

GAVIRIA: ... as it's -- as it's happening.

AMANPOUR: When you look at places like Afghanistan, where the drug trade continues to fuel and pay for the insurgency and instability, as they look there to a way of combating that, they're looking also at Plan Colombia, which is to try to -- which is to...

GAVIRIA: Oh, yes. But -- but you -- you should know something. Probably the problems of security of Afghanistan should be looked at the way Colombia has done. Colombia has improved the security.

But the problems of drugs in Afghanistan will be there for a long, long time. It's not -- it's not so easy to reduce the flow of -- of -- of heroin and the -- these materials, the poppies with which they do make heroin. But, of course, you have to look at Plan Colombia.

Colombia is a -- is a good case, if you want to look for improve -- to improve the security. But it's not a good case if you want to look on how to end narcotrafficking. It's not a good case at all. We will never -- we will never be successful unless the U.S. reduce consumption and Europeans do, also.

AMANPOUR: Well, how -- how do you mean exactly reduce? I mean, you - - part of your report was talking about decriminalization, if not legalization. What do you mean by that?

GAVIRIA: Yes. We -- we -- we do believe in that. You should not put people in jail because of the consumption of drugs. What you need to do with addicts and people that consume drugs is help them, deal with them as a health problem, deal with them as an education problem, or do even what the Europeans do. They take people who are addicts and who are in the process on the medical treatment, and they put them and give them drugs and help them and try to take them out from organized crime and put them in -- in the hands of health system and people who support them.

But just putting people in jail doesn't solve any problem. It only increases the problem. The U.S. has to look its policy to start to use more of that $4 billion a year that they use to use -- to use more of the resources in the health system, in treatment, and taking some people out of jail.

I mean, putting people in jail creates a problem. It doesn't solve a problem. Of course, if they are organized crime, you have to put them in jail. But if they are not organized crime but just consumers, it makes no sense, after all looking at all this experience, to put them in jail. In Europe, that's much better than the U.S....


GAVIRIA: ... with the limits (ph) of consumption, and they don't put people in jail.

AMANPOUR: President Gaviria, thank you so much for joining us.

And up next, we will examine the legacy of Pablo Escobar.


He was one of the most notorious drug lords in Colombia, and his son is trying to get on the right side of the law and the right side of history now.


AMANPOUR: That was Colombia in 1989 at the very moment when gunmen assassinated a charismatic presidential candidate. The killing was ordered by the drug lord Pablo Escobar, and that scene is part of a remarkable new film, "Sins of my Father."

The documentary, which has not been seen before, is about the secret reconciliation between Escobar's son and the sons of some of his father's victims. The film's director, Nicolas Entel, joins me now here.

So, welcome.


AMANPOUR: And this is an extraordinary thing that you've -- you've -- you've tried to profile and you've tried to -- to -- to create in this film. The -- the notion of reconciliation, how on Earth did that come to you? Why did you think this would be even possible, that Pablo Escobar's son would want to reconcile with the sons of those people his father ordered killed?

ENTEL: I was first approached by a friend in Colombia who wanted me to do a documentary on Pablo Escobar, but on our first brainstorming meeting -- and I don't really how or why -- I had this idea that we had to get together the sons of Pablo Escobar with the sons of Luis Carlos Galan and Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who were Escobar's most prominent victims.

And we started this knowing that it was impossible, but since in their sons we encountered a group of extraordinary young people, somehow the impossible became possible.

AMANPOUR: Why did Escobar go after those two politicians? Was it the general mayhem of the time, or was it specific?

ENTEL: It was specific. In 1983 -- or 1982, actually -- Escobar first decided, when he went into politics, Escobar ran for Congress, he decided to support these two young politicians that at the time had founded a new party under the premise that Colombia's politics need to be renovated. When these guys discovered who Escobar was, they expulsed him from the party and they started a fight with Escobar that resulted first in Lara's assassination and then in Galan's.

AMANPOUR: OK. So how did you convince or how did Escobar's son convince the sons of the others to actually meet him?

ENTEL: The only thing I did was being patient. These are truly some great guys. And by working with them, taking my time, doing my homework, studying, listening to them, eventually the son of Pablo Escobar asked me to deliver a letter to the sons of Lara and Galan on this meeting and getting -- all of them getting together. It was just a -- a response to that gesture.

AMANPOUR: So Juan Pablo Escobar, the son of Pablo Escobar, and the son of Rodrigo Lara, who you just mentioned, whose assassination was ordered, have now met for the first time on your film. We want to show a little snippet of that and then continue our conversation.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): It's very hard to separate the facts from our names, our families. The terrible death of your father -- and in the end, we are all orphans.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We can't keep feeding this circle of anger or we'll never get out. We certainly can't get out of it.

The important thing is to look forward. You are a good, peaceful man. I'm a good, peaceful man. Let's move forward.



AMANPOUR: It's very emotional. It almost looks too good to be true. Is it really possible that these sons can reconcile and it can actually make a difference?

ENTEL: I think it is, because I was there. And I think in the case of Rodrigo, who was there meeting with Juan Pablo Escobar, it's also been fair -- he's also been fair to his father's legacy, because that was also the kind of person his father was.

AMANPOUR: And you brought Juan Pablo back to Colombia.


AMANPOUR: Surely everybody was after him.

ENTEL: No one recognized him.

AMANPOUR: How did you get him back in and keep him safe?

ENTEL: After his father's death, he was given a new identity for security reasons. He's now Sebastian Marroquin. He has a new passport. And although first he was afraid -- and he told me, "I'm never going to go back to Colombia," three years into the process, after Rodrigo's gesture of coming to Argentina, he agreed to return to Colombia.

AMANPOUR: It was a very big gesture by Rodrigo. What does he expect to be the fallout for this? Where will this lead for Colombia?

ENTEL: Rodrigo and the sons of Galan, they are all politicians. And I think they believe they are living up to their fathers' legacies by doing this. I -- I think they're very sincere.

AMANPOUR: And -- and the complexities of Escobar and -- the young Escobar and his father and all these -- you know, the whole criminality around it, how did you broach that in -- in your report in going after him?

ENTEL: In a way, the film is two films for the price of one, which I guess is perfect for these times. Half of the film portrays Pablo Escobar, especially through the eyes of his son, and the other half is about Sebastian's attempts to reach to these other sons and them accepting his -- his attempts and finally getting together.

AMANPOUR: And where do you hope this will put Colombia?

ENTEL: I really don't know. I was born in Argentina. I'm not Colombian. So I -- I really want to try to let the film speak for itself, instead of being the one saying that.

AMANPOUR: And the film, in its climax, which we haven't seen and we haven't shown, will show the big reconciliation scene. Is that right?

ENTEL: Absolutely. I think actually it's the first time anyone in Colombia is hearing that Sebastian was there last October.

AMANPOUR: All right. Well, on that note, thank you for giving us that news, and thank you for joining us.

ENTEL: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: You can see more of the film online today on our Web site,, so please join us there.

And next, Colombian cartels are using unconventional methods to evade anti-drug patrols. We'll have more in a moment.



AMANPOUR: In his exclusive reporting, Karl Penhaul revealed a new and risky way drug traffickers are getting cocaine out of Colombia, literally under the radar of law enforcement officials, at least that's what they hope.


PENHAUL (voice-over): A spotter plane tracks something plowing through the choppy seas. The Colombian navy and U.S. coast guards are on the tail of a hand-built submarine. The cargo: eight tons of pure cocaine, according to Colombian authorities. That's almost $500 million dollars' worth on the streets of Europe or America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Drift right along their port side. Hands are in the air.

PENHAUL: The crew surrenders without a fight, but the bust goes bad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going down.

PENHAUL: The traffickers scuttle the sub, sending the cargo to the bottom of the Pacific. The Coast Guard says it's a tactic to destroy evidence of the crime.

Watch this crew bail out during a different chase. When it's later, another six tons of cocaine sink.


AMANPOUR: Six tons is a significant lot for the drug cartels, but they are still shipping more than 500 tons of cocaine into the United States each year.

You can also see more of Karl's reports on our Web site,, and more information not just about drug traffickers, about the consumers, as well. So thank you for watching. For all of us here right now, goodbye from New York.