<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Increasing Repression, U.S. Intervention, and Popular Opposition in Colombia

A Conversation with Colombian Authentic Journalist Alfredo Molano


By Dan Feder
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

June 28, 2004

MEXICO CITY: Journalist and sociologist Alfredo Molano Bravo is one of Colombia’s most respected social critics. He has written extensively on the violence and human rights violations in his country, drug trafficking, and the relationship between the two in his column for El Espectador, Colombia’s second-largest newspaper. Molano fled Colombia for Spain after his reporting on right-wing paramilitaries earned him threats from Carlos Castaño himself in early 1999. While in exile, he also spent a year as a visiting professor at Stanford University, and continued writing his column for El Espectador.

Molano has since returned to his native Bogotá. His latest book, Loyal Soldiers in the Cocaine Kingdom, is his first published in English. A series of stories gathered in interviews with Colombian drug war prisoners, it has been compared by critics to the work of Studs Terkel and Gabriel García Márquez.

Molano last spoke to Narco News in 2000, while he was living in exile in Barcelona; the narco-presidency of Alvaro Uribe was still far off on the horizon, and Plan Colombia was just getting off the ground. He spoke to us again last month in Mexico City, where he was to give a speech on the history of Colombian drug trafficking at the National Autonomous University.

Narco News: The gains by the Colombian left in local elections, in cities like Bogotá, have been making news lately. How do you see this development, and what does it say about the popularity Uribe appears to still command?


Alfredo Molano speaking at the National Autonomous University of Mexico
Photos: Ricardo Sala D.R. 2004
Alfredo Molano: Well, look, there are very contradictory signs there. In terms of public opinion polls, he (Uribe) has a very high level of support. But the the opinion polls in Colombia are telephone surveys of a thousand or fifteen hundred people in a few cities – big cities like Bogotá, and medium-sized cities like Villavicencio. But they’re all done by telephone. So, in the first place you know there is a large part of the population left out of these surveys. There are seven million telephone lines in Colombia, and, let’s say, forty million people. So there is a very large percentage, maybe seventy percent, that does not participate in those polls; they have never been asked, and they will never be asked.

Narco News: And those are the people in the poor neighborhoods, in the countryside…

Alfredo Molano: Of course. And it is not just having a phone, it is having a listed phone number. Not everyone is in the phone book. In Colombia, having a listed number is dangerous. Because of the kidnappings, because people are scared, or for other reasons, they don’t appear in the phone book.

There is something else that makes one think that there is a great statistical bias in the polls. When they ask people, they call anonymously. People do not know who is asking them questions. So, you ask someone, do you like Uribe? People are scared, they are not going to say, no, I don’t like him, because it could turn out to be a trap. The same thing happens with the army. If, knowing what I know, I get a phone call and they ask me, do you support with army – that is pretty tough, and I’m afraid to answer. These factors are, naturally, never taken into account.

Right now, the political climate is a big factor. There are a lot of people who will say things that aren’t exactly what they are thinking. We can see this reflected in two ways.

One is that in the recent referendum (a series of ballot questions on Uribe’s proposals, including questions on privatization and changes in election rules which would allow Uribe to run for another term), the votes said something different. The referendum did not pass. Not one of the questions. So, Uribe lost across the board, now that they were counting votes and not phone calls.

The other, which surprised all of us, is the rise of the left. It was not just Bogotá. It was the Valle de Cauca province. It was the city of Barrancabermeja. In Barrancabermeja, despite the fact that the paramilitaries had been repressing and killing the people for a long time, a man from the left (Édgar Cote Gravino) won the elections. In Bucaramanga, and in Medellin as well. Medellin is the second-largest city in Colombia, and there, in Uribe’s hometown, another leftist (Sergio Fajardo Valderrama) won.

So those are signs that Uribe’s supposed popularity is debatable. But the media have amplified his support, really exaggerated it. The businessmen have taken charge of sustaining this “popularity” of Uribe’s, but I have many doubts.

Narco News: In the past, in the 1950s, with La Violencia, and again in the 1980s when elements of the guerrilla tried to lay down arms and participate in elections, gains for left political parties and popular struggle were accompanied by terrible repression and violence from the right. Has this happened again?

Alfredo Molano: Well, what is known is that the non-governmental organizations and local people from the southern areas, from central mountains and areas like Putumayo and Guaviare, say that the government’s “Operación Patriota” (“Operation Patriot”) is coming to their communities in a big way, bringing ferocious violence. It is called Operation Patriot, a classically North American name, like the PATRIOT Act. There are some figures that say there are sixteen to twenty armed clashes per day in these areas. I don’t believe these figures, but they are still very troubling. And the public doesn’t really know what’s going on.

Narco News: And when a journalist tries to investigate this, that journalist is threatened.

Alfredo Molano: Well, no, I think the government tries to protect journalists, especially North American and European journalists. But naturally there are a lot of limitations. For example, they do not allow journalists to enter the combat zones. This kind of control leaves the public essentially blind, and no one knows what happens in these areas.

There is a very tight control over the information in Colombia, and it gets tighter every day. Ninety, maybe one hundred percent of the news about the conflict or about public order in general are literally produced by the army. So one never completely knows what is going on.

Narco News: Four years ago, you told us that drug legalization, or some kind of drug law reform, had a great deal of support in Colombia. Do you believe that support still exists? Are there spaces and opportunities to discuss these ideas?

Alfredo Molano: Well, not so much. In 1994, the Supreme Court issued a ruling on minimal amounts for drug possession. That is, minimal amounts were not penalized. It was one gram of cocaine, and, I’m not sure how many grams of marijuana. I don’t remember the exact figures, but they were very small amounts.

Anyway, the court had ruled not to punish possession of these amounts, in order to distinguish between consumers and dealers. But Uribe now supports “reforming” this Supreme Court ruling. He supports this, I think, because he is a puritanical, messianic man, but also because he is so close to the United States. If he believes that this measure will be well received in Washington, by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) or the State Department, he won’t hesitate to press for it.

In Colombia, we are moving from being simply drug exporters to importers as well. People, youth, my children, for instance, who once smoked marijuana, are now, from age thirty on down, taking Ecstasy, and a whole range of amphetamines. That is the trend now, even consuming things as dangerous as cat anesthesia. I don’t know what people get out of it, but it is now very common.

But this is still a phenomenon of a small group, of the youth. Most people in Colombia don’t take drugs; it is not something that worries them. They are worried about unemployment, about violence, about the repressive situation in the country, but they don’t really worry about drug consumption.

Narco News: So are you still of the opinion that the only way to end drug trafficking is through legalization?

Alfredo Molano: Ah, yes, without a doubt, the only way that drugs will stop being a big business is when they are decriminalized. But I see this as very far away on the horizon. Look at what happened just recently in California, where even medical marijuana is not accepted. All of the Puritanism over drug consumption, even for medical uses, makes me think that legalization is very improbable. The U.S. politician that decides to unfurl the banner of legalization loses the election, right?

Narco News: But isn’t there some support for this type of perspective among this new group of leftist politicians gaining power?

Alfredo Molano: Yes, it is a group that promotes legalization or decriminalization. The way things are now, decriminalizing drugs in just one country is impossible. We’re not Holland. But yes, the Independent Democratic Pole (PDI in Spanish, the largest leftist opposition bloc to the Uribe government) is in favor of legalization. Even the organization’s leaders have said this. It was Carlos Gaviria (now a senator for the PDI) who won the decriminalization of minimal doses of drugs in the Supreme Court when he was a judge.

Narco News: During your speech yesterday, you talked about how Plan Colombia has not reduced the production of drugs, simply caused production and capital to move to other places…

Alfredo Molano: The price of drugs has not risen. It stays constant or drops. So Plan Colombia is not really affecting crops or production. It is possible that some production is moving to Peru, and that the crops are increasing a bit there, but there are still no more than ten or twelve thousand hectares (25,000-30,000 acres) according to the latest statistics.

On the other hand, there is a problem with the aerial photographs used to claim that coca is being reduced. These photographs do not cover the entire country. They are only taken in areas where coca is still considered to be growing – basically, the provinces of Putumayo, Caquetá, Guaviare, Vichada, and a bit in Meta, and in Nariño. Most of the coca in Putumayo has moved to Nariño, but not all of Nariño has been surveyed. Not all of the Pacific coast has been surveyed, and coca is moving there. Not all of the coffee-growing areas, where there is a lot of coca production as well, have been surveyed. In a very short amount of time, twenty thousand hectares (50,000 acres) have appeared in Vichada. So, in the end I don’t think these photos add up, or prove anything.

Narco News: So you think there are other ends in mind with this program.

Alfredo Molano: Yes, I believe there are other ends in mind. I think that with the path taken in Plan Colombia, with the two forces of crop fumigation and large military operations, the war in Colombia is being intensified. And this is very convenient for the United States, or at least for the hawks in government, because it could lay the way for greater U.S. intervention. Of course, I don’t mean an intervention with marines and soldiers, although there are some rumors….

The U.S. Congress has just authorized an increase in the number of military personnel in Colombia, from four hundred to eight hundred. And they are also trying to increase the number of people allowed from these private military contractors – the same companies, like DynCorp, which are now in Iraq.

So, the level of U.S. intervention seems to me to be increasing. I think that it may have as a long-term objective – and remember, not the only objective, as these types of projects have many different objectives – to provoke a conflict with Venezuela that necessitates U.S. intervention. Not so much against the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest guerrilla organization) as against Chávez.

I also think that a regularization of the political situation in Colombia could halt the destabilization, or rather, the leftward inclination of the Andean-Amazonian region. I’m talking about Lula in Brazil, Chávez, and even this new Panamanian (Martín Torrijos). Also what is happening in Peru and Ecuador signals a possible inclination toward the left in those countries. So, these things worry the United States. Argentina worries them. These countries’ foreign debt worries them. The status of free trade agreements worries them.

So, in the end, I think that giving the continent a bit of discipline is part of Plan Colombia.

Narco News: What can you say about the Colombian paramilitaries captured recently in the outskirts of Caracas? You mentioned this yesterday as well.

Alfredo Molano: It really seems to me that for the first time, an important connection has come out that until now had been kept hidden from the public in Colombia. Or at least most people did not know about it, although some of us suspected it or had heard about it through rumors. This was the link between the Colombian paramilitaries and the Cuban exile community. For example, I had heard that a Cuban-American group was secretly raising money to send to Colombian paramilitaries. And many of the lawyers working for the paramilitaries are connected to anti-Castro activism.

Now, this Roberto Alonso owns the huge ranch where they found the paramilitaries near Caracas. And he is a man of great importance in the anti-Castro media. So, for the first time, this link between Cuban-American groups and the paramilitaries came to light.

Narco News: And, given the history of the region, what involvement might the United States have in this?

Alfredo Molano: I don’t know. Certainly the whole world knows about the regular, intimate contact between the CIA and the Cuban exiles. So perhaps there is something suspicious in that direction. Of course, I am seeing these things from a distance, and I don’t have the evidence to say, yes, there was U.S. involvement. But there are certainly signs of it.

Narco News: What do you think journalists need to be investigating with respect to Colombia, that perhaps so far has not received as much attention as it should? What information is lacking?

Alfredo Molano: Well, one thing I think is important is to investigate the creation of official statistics. It is something the public should know. How they are prepared, what degree of accuracy they have, how truthful these figures are. That, to me, seems very important.

A second interesting point, for me, which has now become much broader, much more serious, is the link between the paramilitaries and the anti-Castroites in Miami. It would be very helpful to know what that link really is.

Now, I’ll tell you about something else, which is a more minor issue but interesting nonetheless. That is what is happening with Ecopetrol, the seventy-year-old Colombian oil company. It was founded in the 20s, when the country’s oil was nationalized, and has always had a very powerful union. That union is basically being eliminated, and a lot is going to change because of this. This change in oil policy, in the legacy of the oil workers and their power over the company, is happening just at the moment that the price of oil is starting to rise, at the moment that the crisis in Iraq threatens to bring an oil crisis. So, I think it would be worth investigating this situation.

Narco News: What are you working on now?

Alfredo Molano: I have recently been going into the prisons in Colombia. And now I am working on a book about the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America