Fighting the New Drug Lords 

Fighting the New Drug Lords 
Posted by FoM on February 16, 2000 at 15:29:03 PT
By Joseph Contreras & Steven Ambrus
Source: Newsweek International
The DEA's nightmare: Colombian targets get smart, techno-hip and phenomenally successful. Aside from a few human weaknesses, Alejandro Bernal Madrigal was the very image of respectability—at least by the strict but skin-deep standards of Colombia's upper-middle class. The light-complexioned, blue-eyed businessman, 40, lavished millions of dollars on his pampered stable of top-of-the-line show horses. 
Another favorite pastime was taking Caribbean cruises with bosomy young models aboard his yacht, the Claudia V. He was also said to enjoy an occasional puff or two of marijuana. But Bernal's little faults never hurt his social standing. His three children attended one of the best private schools in Medellin. His wife, Blanca Estela, kept fit playing tennis at the city's exclusive Ceylan Racquet Club. By the late 1990s, Bernal had reached the top of his profession. According to Colombian law-enforcement officials, he was using satellite phones and the Internet to run an export network that handled at least 10 tons of cocaine every month—roughly 25 percent of Colombia's total production.U.S. and Colombian authorities say Bernal exemplifies an insidious new breed of drug lord. The young narcotraficantes are buttoned-down, businesslike and technologically sophisticated. "These new guys don't flaunt jewels or drive flashy cars, and they are more educated and less violent," says Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, chief of the Colombian National Police. "You have to use a lot more intelligence and surveillance to nab them." And they are phenomenally successful. Their drug shipments dwarf the amounts that were sent north by the old Medellin and Cali cocaine cartels at the peak of their bloody careers a decade ago. In 1990 the country's traffickers produced about 65 metric tons of cocaine. Last year the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration calculated Colombia's annual cocaine production at about 165 metric tons. This month Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet told a U.S. Senate committee that the latest estimate is more than two and a half times that much.The cocaine boom has pushed Colombia and the drug war back to the top of the White House's foreign-policy agenda. Last week the Clinton administration formally unveiled a two-year, $1.3 billion emergency aid package to help Colombia's beleaguered president, Andres Pastrana, fight the tide. Congressional approval of the bill would make Bogota by far the largest U.S. foreign-aid recipient outside the Mideast. The growing investment of American troops, arms and money has already begun provoking comparisons with Vietnam, where Washington was incrementally sucked into a disastrous and unwinnable conflict.Bernal himself is on the sidelines for now, locked up in a maximum-security Colombian prison and fighting efforts to extradite him to the United States. A federal grand jury in Florida has indicted him on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to smuggle cocaine. (In reply to NEWSWEEK's repeated requests for an interview, Bernal claimed prison officials had forbidden it. He also declined to answer a list of written questions. According to Eduardo Aguilar, his Bogota attorney, Bernal insists Colombia's extradition proceedings against him are nothing but a political ploy to win congressional approval of the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package.)Colombian police seized Bernal late last year during a nationwide drug raid code-named Operation Millennium, the culmination of a joint U.S.-Colombian investigation spanning a year and two continents. In a single night, some 30 of Colombia's most wanted individuals were rounded up, including Fabio Ochoa Vasquez, a leading member of Medellin's reputed first family of cocaine. Even so, Bernal was the one who got top billing in the DEA's announcement of the mass arrests. (Ochoa has publicly declared his innocence.)Law enforcers call Bernal anything but a common criminal. Colombia's trigger-happy first generation of coke lords tended to be short-term scary but long-term dumb. They declared war on their own country, planting car bombs outside law-enforcement headquarters and hiring assassins to rub out troublesome judges, cabinet ministers and presidential candidates. In Bernal's earlier years, investigators say, one of his mentors was the notorious Pablo Escobar. Before his death in a 1993 police shootout, the Medellin godfather once ordered a Colombian airliner blown out of the sky, killing 110 passengers, because he thought two police informants were aboard. The drug bosses ultimately brought destruction on themselves. By the mid-1990s many of them were dead or behind bars, and the cartels they had built were in ruins.Such violence was scarcely Bernal's style. Urbane and smooth, he preferred to go about his daily affairs unencumbered by obtrusive bodyguards. Without them he could blend in perfectly with the other impeccably tailored customers at the finest restaurants in Bogota and Cartagena. Besides, blood feuds tend to be bad for commerce. "They have learned a lot from the past," a senior Colombian intelligence official says of the new generation of narcobosses. "They consider drug trafficking to be a business, not a crime, and it's not in their interest to kill someone." Working their way up as second-tier lieutenants in the Medellin and Cali cartels, they had plenty of opportunity to learn from the disastrous mistakes of their elders.Bernal appreciated the value of keeping a low profile. That was just one of the many ways he differed from the streetcorner cowboys and renegade aristocrats who allegedly taught him the narcotics trade in the 1980s. As police sources retell the story of Bernal's life, he grew up in the city of Pereira, about 200 kilometers due south of Medellin, in a proper middle-class family.As a young man, however, Bernal fell in with a fellow horse fancier: Fabio Ochoa Vasquez, the youngest of three sons in the family of a powerful Medellin cattle baron, Don Fabio Ochoa Restrepo. Along with Escobar, the Ochoa boys are generally regarded as central figures in the creation of Colombia's international cocaine trade in the late 1970s. Bernal moved to Los Angeles in 1981 to oversee their West Coast trafficking and money-laundering operations in the United States, according to investigators. "The Medellin cartel was Bernal's school of drug trafficking," says the Colombian intelligence official. "They were the pros who taught the young novice how to obtain, transport and distribute drugs."He seems to have done his homework. In the States, Bernal went into business selling bathroom faucets and ornamental tiles. He shattered that cover in 1989 when Mexican police busted him with 500 kilos of cocaine in his possession. He spent the next three years in a Mexican prison—but he never betrayed his friends outside. His stand-up reputation paid off handsomely when he went home to Colombia in 1995. By then police had broken the cartels' backs. Police say Bernal quickly filled the vacuum by building a network of his own.It was an evolutionary leap beyond any drug ring Colombia had ever seen. Bernal recruited a team of systems analysts to create secure channels for internal communications. He also enlisted the services of seemingly legitimate professionals such as Alberto de Jesus Gallego. A former vice president of marketing for the Colombian airline Aces, he would become the new syndicate's chief financial officer, drug investigators say. (Since being captured in the Operation Millennium sweep, Gallego has not replied publicly to the charges against him. He has avoided extradition so far.) Bernal himself allegedly specialized in transportation, sending multiton loads of cocaine via Ecuador, Mexico and the Bahamas (map). According to the sworn affidavit of one DEA agent, Bernal claimed he was shipping 60 tons of cocaine a month to the United States at the syndicate's peak.Law officers say Bernal's biggest stride was his use of technology to boost efficiency and protect trade secrets—like most successful entrepreneurs in the '90s. "He took his organization into a new realm where high-tech operations were the norm," in the words of Donnie Marshall, the DEA chief. The syndicate hired a Colombian techie who had done some jobs for the Cali cartel in the past. Motorola, as he called himself, had the knack of pirating cell-phone ID codes assigned to legitimate customers. Disguising their calls with borrowed codes, the syndicate's members could make their phone communications more difficult to trace. The group's computer experts also set up private Internet chat rooms, with firewalls designed to foil any hackers working for the cops, so the far-flung traffickers could exchange messages and instructions. Bernal's faith in high-tech security extended to his most cherished possessions: he hid special microchips under the skin of his paso fino horses to make them easier to trace in case of theft.For all that, technology may have been Bernal's undoing. In December 1998, DEA agents armed with a search warrant entered the north Miami apartment of an alleged Bernal money launderer named Carlos Jaramillo. (His present whereabouts are unknown; he was targeted for arrest in Operation Millennium but evaded capture.) The DEA agents discovered a wealth of intelligence stored in a computer at the apartment. Investigators say the files revealed in detail how the syndicate used e-mail and Internet-based telecommunications to coordinate pickups and deliveries.Less than three months after the Miami raid, Colombian police succeeded in bugging a Bogota office suite that was rented in Jaramillo's name and used as the syndicate's nerve center. Colombian authorities also managed to wiretap 180 supposedly secure cell phones, pagers, fax machines and landline phones used by alleged members of the syndicate. Based on evidence gathered by the investigators, last September a federal grand jury in Florida indicted Bernal and 39 alleged associates, including Jaramillo and Ochoa, for narcotics smuggling and money laundering.The end came during the predawn hours of Oct. 13. Bernal and two colleagues were sharing a bottle of 18-year-old scotch whisky in a north Bogota apartment when a plate-glass window in the living room shattered with a deafening crack. Fifty policemen and Colombian special agents burst into the flat; the three men offered no resistance. Within a few hours they and 27 other accused traffickers and accomplices were on display at a press conference in Bogota to declare victory for the forces of Operation Millennium.The roundup of the alleged Bernal syndicate was a public-relations triumph for U.S. and Colombian law enforcers. The DEA trumpeted the mass arrests as the joint effort's "most significant success to date." All the same, there's no guarantee that the arrests will make much of a dent on Colombia's overall narcotics trade. Nine of the 40 Operation Millennium codefendants remain at large. And Colombian intelligence officials estimate that the country still has 28 major smuggling syndicates in business, buying and exporting narcotics from more than 400 small suppliers.Busting the new drug lords isn't getting any easier. The cartels of the 1980s were set up something like vertically integrated corporations. They were run by senior executives who controlled practically everything from the production, transportation and distribution of narcotics to the laundering of the profits. Police investigators needed to recruit only a single strategically placed informant to disrupt an entire cartel.Today's syndicates tend to operate more as loose-knit consortiums of independent traffickers. The participants pool their resources for specific opportunities and then split up until the next big order comes along. Such a fragmented structure means that the arrest of an alleged kingpin like Bernal no longer heralds the collapse of his entire organization. "You don't have one or two individuals who control everything," says a Bogota-based DEA agent. "These organizations come together for convenience, and you no longer have a situation where if you target these guys you're targeting the entire cartel."Is war the answer? Military assistance is at the core of Clinton's proposed emergency plan, which provides for the training of two special Colombian Army anti-drug battalions to augment a 950-strong unit trained by U.S. Green Berets last year. Some $700 million, about a third of the total dollar amount, is for the purchase of 30 Blackhawk and 33 Huey helicopters to help the Army dislodge the leftist guerrillas who control much of the prime drug-growing land in the south. "Eradication is the principal goal of this package," says Thomas Umberg, the White House's deputy drug czar. "You can't fly down there without seeing coca fields all over."Wiping out the coca growers isn't likely to have much effect on the kingpins beyond raising the price of their product. Bernal had no known ties to Colombia's leftist rebels. On the contrary, court documents in his case identify two of his Operation Millennium codefendants as right-wing paramilitary members, blood enemies of the guerrillas. And the syndicate's alleged nerve center was a $500-a-month fifth-floor office suite in the capital, hundreds of kilometers away from the steamy southern lowlands where most of the country's coca bushes grow.So far Washington's drug warriors haven't had much luck trying to spend the enemy into surrender. Between 1996 and 1999, U.S. aid to Colombia grew fivefold, from about $65 million to $290 million. During those years the country's total area under coca cultivation didn't shrink: drug experts say it appears to have at least doubled. "We have spent billions trying to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States, and the flow has gotten worse, not better," says U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The trouble is, a few billion dollars is nothing compared with the money U.S. drug users will pay to keep their supply flowing. You don't have to be an Alejandro Bernal to get the picture.Newsweek International, February 21, 2000 © 2000 Newsweek, Inc. Related Articles:Colombia Anti-Drug Plan Draws Hill Fire Over US-Colombia Policy Colombia Cocaine Production Up A School That Should Be Closed 
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