In Colombia, memory is a dangerous thing. Best to forget that drugs money has helped to finance every election since 1978; or that, of the candidates for next year's presidential election, two have connections with the traffic; or that the man who got Pablo Escobar elected to Congress and who has served time for fraud is still a leading parliamentarian; or that a quarter of Colombia's members of congress are registered in the international drugs computers as suspect, and intelligence officers put the real figure much higher.

In this act of collective amnesia, the strongest term in the political lexicon is that a politician's past is 'questioned'. But the answers are rarely definitive because definitive answers are dangerous and inconvenient.

So the myth persists that the cartel based in the city of Cali, who supplanted Escobar's Medellin cartel as cocaine suppliers to the world, is peaceful: if they kill, this dream has it, they only kill other criminals. In fact, they kill people who are an obstacle to their business.

Violence is everywhere. In Cali's Avenida Pasoancha, the traquetes - the minor drug traffickers, who grow rich on the crumbs from the Cali cartel's table - while away the small hours playing 'Blind Chicken'. The rules are simple: you blindfold however many drivers want to play and they race their cars along the city street. The winner is the one left alive.

Disco dancing, rarely lethal in itself, has begun to cause fatalities in young Cali women unlucky enough to catch the eye of a traquete. The woman's partner is advised to run for his life. The woman turns up later, raped and murdered.

These are just passing novelties. In Colombia, violence is the leading cause of death and the nightly news is a breakneck gallop through the murders of the day, interspersed with government announcements that urge citizens with kidnapped relatives not to pay the ransom. The case is simply put: 60 per cent of the ransom victims are murdered anyway.

It is true, though, that the Cali cartel is different. They never felt the need to declare war on the state, as Pablo Escobar did. Their style was not the massive car bomb in central Bogota or the wholesale slaughter of judges and policemen. They kill more discreetly and instead of trying to defeat the state in arms, they preferred to buy it.

'The killing of Pablo Escobar was excellent for the country,' said Colombia's venerable Fiscal General, Gustavo de Greiff, last week, 'a demonstration that crime doesn't pay.' But in Cali, crime pays sums that set the mind reeling. Eighty per cent of the world's cocaine supplies is under Cali's control; annual cash seizures of dollars 200m; estimated annual profits of dollars 20bn.

Crime paid for the cars the traquetes wreck on Avenida Pasoancha and for the skyscrapers going up on every street in the better parts of town. It has paid for Cali's property boom. 'If I buy a property for dollars 100,000 and somebody offers me dollars 150,000,' said Fabio Rodriguez, chairman of Cali's Chamber of Commerce, 'I don't ask if he is a narco or not.' Crime has paid for the vast mansions in the suburb of Ciudad Jardin, for the fences and security systems, for the swimming pools and the polo ponies and the men with machine guns who guard them. It pays for the beauty queens and football teams that establish the cartel members' claims to be patrons of the arts. It paid for the revenge of one of the cartel's capos, Jose Santacruz London, on the old elite of Cali, who refused to rent him the exclusive Club Colombia for his daughter's 15th birthday. Pablo Escobar might have bombed the club. Santacruz built what local legend has is a replica, in Ciudad Jardin.

'Best not to pass the same house twice,' said the driver, cruising briskly along the road that skirts Santacruz's property. 'You can't see them, but we are under observation.'

Crime has paid for the telephone taps at Cali's main hotels, for the fleets of taxis that ply Cali's streets, for the airport security men who are the first link in the long chain of watchers who track the movements of strangers - visiting anti-narcotics agents, government officials, journalists - anyone the quiet men of Cali need to know about. It has paid the bribes to the diplomats, police and the army. And with their greatest enemy, Pablo Escobar, eliminated, the crimes of the Cali cartel will pay for the lawyers who will negotiate the cartel's greatest triumph over the state: the smartest piece of theatre of all, the laundering, not just of the profits, but of the men themselves.

Three days ago, Gustavo de Greiff announced that the leaders of the Cali cartel were ready to proceed with their predicted surrender: their ritual of submission to the law that the Colombian government, in a willing suspension of disbelief, has proposed as the solution to the problem.

'In a year's time, we will have done with the narcotics traffic in Colombia.' The Deputy Fiscal, Francisco Sontura, was repeating the lines the script has allotted him. He added, in a last-minute revision to the text, 'Well perhaps 50 per cent.' For the narrow theatrical purpose, it hardly matters.

There are a few people barracking from the stalls. Enrique Perejo used to be Colombia's Minister of Justice, in which role he signed several extradition orders. That was when Colombia had agreed to the US proposal, born out of despair that any major trafficker would ever be tried in Colombia, that the narcotic mafia be extradited to the United States and tried there for crimes committed in Colombia. The cartels had the arrangement overturned after a savage terrorist campaign, but they did not forget the man who had signed the orders.

Enrique Perejo was sent for safe keeping as ambassador to Budapest. They caught up with him there. Perejo survived the shooting and is now running for president. It is a quixotic gesture, but it enables him to be the public guardian of memory.

'This so-called policy of surrender of the traffickers to the state is the opposite,' he said. 'It's the surrender of the state to the traffickers. The terms of this deal have been dictated by the cartels.'

The deal, in its essence, goes back nearly 10 years, to a meeting in Panama between the cartels and the then Procurator General of Colombia, Carlos Jimenez Gomez. Jimenez Gomez is no longer Procurator General. He works instead as a lawyer for the Ochoa brothers, once prominent members of the Medellin cartel. The message he brought home in 1984 was that the cartels wanted to legitimise themselves. They offered to repatriate their fortunes and dismantle their cocaine laboratories in exchange for plea-bargaining and a guarantee of no extradition. Extradition is now banned under Colombia's new constitution.

One by one, other conditions have been set and met: the details of the prison regime, the degree of reduction of sentences, the guarantee of no further prosecution.

And preparations have been made. The illicit fortunes are run through frontmen; much of the cocaine processing, which, with the marketing, is the Colombians' special genius, has been dispersed to new laboratories in Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. Some final touches were added with a revision of the penal code, set by the President to Congress earlier this year and approved without opposition after intensive lobbying by the cartel's lawyers. It allows for co-operative traffickers to serve their sentences in the comfort of their homes, and increases parole available. Another demand - the death of Escobar - has already been met. The signs are that the deal is ready.

'If the members of the Cali cartel feel sufficiently in control of their destiny,' said the intelligence officer, 'they will surrender.' And what will be the result of this 'surrender'? 'Take Gilberto Rodriguez Orjuela,' said the intelligence officer. 'A cartel capo who deserves life several times over. If he got all the break the law allows, he would serve eleven-and-a-half months.' And when he got out, he would be free to enjoy the status that his wealth accords him.

A distinguished ex-president of Colombia sat in an armchair, framed by the cultivated elegance of his drawing room. He talked with satisfaction of the long history of Colombia's two main political parties, of their apparently eternal hold on power. And if the traffickers surrender, would they be socially acceptable, the penalty paid? Would men like the ex-president go to their parties, as the aspiring presidents are said to do now? 'Yes, there is talk of surrender,' mused the ex-president. 'I don't know the details.'

And would they be acceptable, finally, in the Club Colombia? Would they be seen at parties in the Palace? But the ex-president has slipped off again, pursuing his game of shadows in the dense camouflage of Colombia's long democratic traditions.

'Do you really imagine,' snorted Gonzalo Guillen, the editor of the Bogota newspaper La Prensa, 'that they are going to give up the most profitable business in the world? They can't give it up. As soon as they lose the profits from the trafficking, they lose their ability to pay the police and army, to buy the politicians, to maintain the apparatus that keeps them alive. Once they stop, they are dead. And if, by some stroke of magic, they did stop, can you imagine that nobody else would take it over? Have Europe and America stopped producing the precursor chemicals that you need to refine the cocaine? Have the international banks given up the fortunes in narco-dollars that keep them going? Has the rest of the world got rid of the hundreds of thousands of addicts who buy the stuff? Have the British police caught the capos who organise the distribution and sales?'

In the Fiscal's office, Francisco Sintura warms to the defence of the policy that Enrique Perejo calls the state's surrender. His words come at the speed of a practised lawyer on the attack. 'We have had 20 years of fighting narcotics traffic. We have thousands of dead - police, officials, judges, presidential candidates. It hasn't worked because of the law of silence. Anyone who talks suffers the consequences.

'In an ideal system of justice,' he continued, 'the law would be applied with full rigour. But here, where people are terrified, where witnesses won't talk, where those who collaborate with the law are killed, where the judges are terrorised and eliminated here, you have to adopt a different strategy. And here, the strategy we have adopted is that of submission to the law.'

The lights seem set to dim soon for the next act. The script was written under the gun and rewarded by the bribe. The audience, except for a few sceptical critics, will applaud. There may even be some favourable international reviews. But it will be theatre, playing to a house which has found reality too hard to bear. And the next act will not be the last.

(Photograph omitted)