Cocaine is still king in Colombia: Pablo Escobar's escape has revealed the hollowness of the government's claims of success. Colin Harding reports

PRESIDENT Cesar Gaviria Trujillo of Colombia must be feeling that the political triumphs of his first two years in office are rapidly turning to dust as a consequence of the Escobar jail-break debacle. His administration's carefully- cultivated image of competence is falling to bits, and image is all-important in Colombia, a country that feels it does not always get due credit and respect from the rest of the world.

The contrast between image and reality is something that strikes all observers of this fascinating country. Colombia would like to be regarded as a modern country with a well-developed and diversified economic base and one of the oldest democratic traditions in the Americas. But the rest of the world tends to think only of drugs and violence. The outcry following Pablo Escobar's effortless escape from his luxurious prison was provoked as much by a feeling that it made Colombia a laughing stock in the eyes of the world as anything else, and the President knows that he must ultimately take the blame.

The pacification of the Medellin cocaine cartel, after two years of open warfare that shook Colombia's democratic institutions and brought the country to the verge of a collective nervous breakdown, was Mr Gaviria's main claim to fame. The man who only became president because the Liberal Party's most popular candidate, Luis Carlos Galan, was murdered on Escobar's orders in August 1989 set himself the task of bringing the 'drug war' to a close by diplomatic rather than military means.

Whereas his predecessor, Virgilio Barco, had tried to smash the drug barons at the cost of hundreds of lives and a succession of bomb outrages and assassinations in the main cities, Mr Gaviria offered a negotiated surrender: traffickers who turned themselves in and confessed to at least some crimes would receive reduced sentences and immunity from extradition.

The likes of Escobar and the Ochoa brothers of Medellin, who took on but ultimately failed to defeat the military might of the state, accepted this offer with alacrity. It offered a reprieve from the attrition of endless combat, and banished the threat of standing trial in the United States, which was the market for most of the cartel's products. By the middle of last year the top leaders of the Medellin cartel were safely behind bars, the car-bombs and gun-battles ceased and the country breathed a sigh of relief.

But just how far the image was from the reality is now becoming apparent. Escobar treated the well-appointed prison near his home town of Envigado, south of Medellin, as a convenient base for pursuing his business activities. He used the guards as messengers to bring in underworld rivals for interrogation and disposal, and (according to one account) finally slipped them in excess of a million dollars to allow him to walk out while army commandos stormed the jail. Escobar never confessed to anything more than a minor smuggling offence, contrary to the terms of his surrender, and after more than a year in detention he had still not been brought to trial.

So much for Colombia's supposedly reformed judicial system. The government's great fear now is that the drug war will resume. Escobar still has plenty of scores to settle, not only with the authorities and his rivals in Medellin, but with the powerful Cali cartel, which has moved into the vastly more lucrative heroin business in the past year or so.

There have been calls for President Gaviria's resignation, notably from Enrique Parejo, a former justice minister who took on the cartels and nearly paid for it with his life. He was sent off to supposed safety as ambassador to Hungary in 1985, but a few months later cartel gunmen pumped five bullets into him on a Budapest street. He survived, and is now challenging for the Liberal nomination in the 1994 presidential elections. Mr Gaviria will not go now, but his credibility is badly damaged, perhaps beyond repair.

To make matters worse, the new constitution, promulgated last year, which was to have been Mr Gaviria's other great gift to posterity, is also showing signs of wear. It has not brought peace to this turbulent country and has singularly failed to protect the human rights of Colombia's 30 million citizens. In addition, it outlaws extradition of Colombian citizens for ever more. The two remaining guerrilla organisations, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), remain obstinately outside the political system despite the government's best efforts to bring them in from the hills.

Finally, an ELN sabotage campaign against oil pipelines is helping to draw attention to another area of official incompetence: a country with a super-abundance of energy resources has been suffering from acute power shortages that have plunged Bogota and other cities into darkness for hours at a time. A return now to the drug-fuelled warfare of the recent past could be the last straw.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future