In October 1989, the press revealed one of Colombia’s best-kept secrets: that for over a year, authorized representatives of the government of Colombia had been holding formal talks with authorized representatives of the country’s drug-traffickers. When the government denied the report, the drug-traffickers then confirmed it, subsequently forcing the government to admit reluctantly that it was true. There was no further explanation. There has been no further explanation, and in the end the press disclosure has revealed only one thing: the pattern of a drugs war that has relentlessly repeated itself, with no prospect of solution.

The first known attempt at dialogue was in Panama in May 1984, when one of the leading drug-traffickers, Pablo Escobar Gaviria, head of the Medellím cartel, used an intermediary to convey a proposal to President Belisario Betancur. It stated that Escobar and the other drug-traffickers would withdraw from the drugs trade, would destroy their processing plants, would re-invest their immense capital legally in local industry and commerce and would share with the state the burden of the foreign debt–if in return, the drug-traffickers were tried in Colombia and not extradited to the United States, under the terms of a treaty that, although dormant for several years, was then about to be revived.

It is interesting that Escobar and the drug-traffickers did not seek to be pardoned, even though the idea of an amnesty had already been established: on the day he took office, President Belisario Betancur had offered an amnesty to members of the armed guerrilla movements, some of whom had been sheltering in Colombia’s mountains for more than thirty years. President Betancur has always held to a policy of dialogue, and so he greeted the drug-traffickers’ offer in a positive spirit. Attorney General Carlos Jimenez Gómez, who for the past year had been holding secret talks with the main drug barons in search of an honourable agreement, set off to meet them in Panama once more. It has not been proven that this meeting was authorized by the president, but I believe it was. However, that was as far as things got. On 4 July, the newspaper El Tiempo learned about the meetings and denounced them, whipping up public opinion against any possibility of agreement. President Betancur found himself obliged to back off and to deny that he had anything to do with the matter. With the hindsight of six years, it is clear that Colombia missed the opportunity to spare itself many of the horrors now afflicting it.

The General
Is Nothing Sacred?