by Maurizio Sacchi

At least two clichés about the relationship between Colombian criminal organisations and politics are demystified in the memoirs of former narco Carlos Lehder. His book, Life and Death of the Medellín Cartel (below is the cover of the Spanish edition published at the same time), was published in February by Penguin Random House. In the pages of his memoir, the author discusses the financing of political campaigns with drug money, the relationship between the traffickers and the guerrillas of the time, and their activities.

Drug money has permeated Colombian politics. Lehder mentions, among others, the late presidents Alfonso López Michelsen (1974-1978) and Belisario Betancur (1982-1986). He assures readers that in the 1982 presidential campaign, López – who had already been president and was running for the Liberal Party – received contributions from Pablo Escobar and seven other drug traffickers, while drug lord Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, El Mexicano, would not contribute because he considered himself a conservative, and gave almost a million dollars to Betancur’s Conservative Party, which won the 1982 elections.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Lehder recounts a meeting with Manuel Marulanda Vélez, alias Tirofijo, and Jacobo Arenas, then a prominent leader of the FARC guerrilla movement. He says he signed a drug trafficking agreement with them. “On the land they gave me, in the department of Vichada, I was able to build and operate airstrips,” he writes in the book. “As for drug trafficking, I had to pay the FARC – in cash – 10% of all my profits in Vichada, the same percentage paid by all coca growers and laboratory owners. I accepted the terms as fair and beneficial for all of us.” This agreement, which included an absolute ban on the sale of cocaine to workers and a minimum wage for farmers, gave rise to the US theory of ‘narco guerra’. This theory justified the provision of armed US helicopters to the Colombian armed forces, which were used not so much to fight the cartels as to fight the insurgency.

Concerning the M-19 movement, of which the current president, Gustavo Petro, was a member, Lehder disputes the version of the dramatic seizure of the Bogotá Palace of Justice on 6 November 1985 as told in the famous TV series ‘Narcos’. Lehder says the Medellín cartel did not finance the seizure of the Bogotá Palace of Justice. “I can assure about the numerous speculations involving Pablo Escobar that these are false versions. Neither Pablo Escobar nor I ever knew in advance of the M-19’s plans to storm the Palace of Justice. Moreover, in my opinion, this type of operation (…) did not require a large financial outlay, since the guerrillas do not receive salaries, nor are they mercenaries under contract”. In the imaginative and tendentious version of the TV series, the attack is explained as a ploy to destroy the judicial archives of Pablo Escobar.

In reality, the motives were different and concerned the peace process. The M-19 claimed that the Colombian army had broken the ceasefire a few months before the attack on the Supreme Court: the government of Belisario Betancur Cuartas had not respected the Corinth, Hobo and Medellín agreements, signed on 24 August 1984. President Betancur had promised to make peace with the armed groups. In November 1983, he met the M-19 commanders Iván Marino Ospina and Álvaro Fayad in Madrid, the first time a sitting Colombian president had met with armed guerrillas. The commander of the National Army, Miguel Vega Uribe, and the Minister of Defence, General Fernando Landazábal, who was dismissed in January 1984, disagreed. The president of the dialogue commission, Otto Morales Benítez, spoke of “devious enemies of peace.”

The sabotage of the peace process by the right-wing and military leadership was evident in the days leading up to the drama at the Palace of Justice. On 15 March 1985, the “Desagravio por la paz y la democracia” march called by the M-19 took place in Bogotá; In May there was an attempt on the life of Antonio Navarro, in June the capture of Génova (Quindío), in August the death of Iván Marino Ospina in Cali, then the massacre in the south-east of Bogotá (for which, in 1997, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemned the extrajudicial killing of 11 people, 10 M-19 fighters and one civilian). At this point, the M-19 decided to take over the palace. This operation was intended to draw public attention to the sabotage of the peace process. But the right-wing hawks seized the opportunity to turn it into a bloodbath.

If during the recent election campaign, President Petro had to fend off accusations from his past with the M-19, now, 18 months after his victory, he is facing popular discontent. Colombian public opinion is shifting to the right, while the left is steadily losing ground. Health, pension and labour reforms face obstacles in Congress. Security concerns are rising, with 87% believing that public security is deteriorating. Economic concerns are on the rise, with 80% believing they are getting worse. The only positive note is that 49% of Colombians believe education is improving in terms of quality and coverage.

The unions, which support Colombia’s first left-wing president, have a 57% disapproval rating, the highest in 23 years of polling. In addition, 63% of respondents oppose the legalisation of cannabis, while only 33% support it, the lowest level of support in two years. Overall opposition to drug trafficking and use is 78%. Furthermore, 61% disagree with the government’s proposal to suspend oil and gas exploration.

Public pessimism has also affected the president’s flagship ‘total peace’ plan. The government is negotiating with several armed groups at the same time as implementing the agreement signed by Juan Manuel Santos with the now-defunct FARC guerrillas. In particular, 74% of respondents think that the implementation of the agreement is going in the wrong direction, while 21% think the opposite. On the other hand, the figures are very similar to those observed during the Duque government, which was known for its critical attitude towards the agreement. 63% doubt that the government will fulfil its part of the agreement, while 73% believe that even the defunct guerrilla group will not do so.

Now Petro is assuring that the reforms, on which his credibility and popularity depend, will be accelerated. This is no easy task, given the entrenched nature of the problems that plague Colombian society. It is made all the more difficult by the consistency with which Petro proposes to achieve the decarbonisation of the economy. An important economic resource that is missing, just as the world seems to have turned its back on the same issue, starting with its powerful neighbour and ally, Lula’s Brazil.

On the cover photo, from the Archive of the Policia Nacional de Colombia, the army during the assault on the Supreme Court in 1985 (by Wikipedia)