BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A signature trophy that Gen. Oscar Naranjo has carefully displayed in glass at Police Intelligence headquarters is odd by any measure: the neatly folded uniform of a rebel commander slain in 2008, clearly showing the holes from the shrapnel that killed him.
The four-star general, who retired as Colombia’s police director this week, is proud of that and the others that line a hallway at the Police Intelligence Directorate in northern Bogota. They are testament to an intelligence empire he built that is unrivaled in Latin America.
Naranjo, 55, has played a central role in the capture or death of nearly every top Colombian drug trafficker, beginning with Pablo Escobar. The dismantling of the Medellin and Cali cocaine cartels and the splintering of successor trafficking organizations into ever-smaller groups was, as much as anyone’s, Naranjo’s doing.
On Thursday, Mexican presidential front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto said Naranjo has agreed to serve as his adviser on fighting drug trafficking if Pena Nieto wins the July 1 election.
The candidate has pledged to reduce violent crime affecting ordinary people in Mexico’s drug war, a contrast to President Felipe Calderon’s strategy of going after drug kingpins. Analysts have said Pena Nieto’s strategy could mean that drug dealers who conduct their businesses discreetly will be left alone.
But Naranjo, standing with Pena Nieto at a news conference, said all cartels should be treated equally because “there can’t be inequalities in the treatment of criminals.”
Naranjo’s 36-year career in Colombia, the last five as commander of 170,000 cops, coincides with his country’s tortured journey from the verge of a near-failed state to what U.S. officials, Naranjo’s chief patrons, tout as a model for the region’s deadliest drug-war battlegrounds.
For a man who navigated the depths of the underworld for most of his career, whether battling rebels or ferreting out drug traffickers, his approval ratings in Colombia have been as high as any other public figure save Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s pugilistic law-and-order president in 2002-1010.
In a leaked 2009 Wikileaks cable, former U.S. ambassador William Brownfield said Naranjo was “perhaps the smartest, best informed member” of Colombia’s government.
A leading Colombian rights activist, Gustavo Gallon, said Naranjo “has been upstanding, and has favored rights of civilians over the military.”
And this from Myles Frechette, the U.S. ambassador in 1994-97: “It was Naranjo’s analysis and many of the strategies he put together that slowly and eventually got Colombia to where it is today.”
Yet Naranjo acknowledges making dark alliances when it was a question of national survival.
Colombians tend to agree that they were worth it.
With his urbane manner and generous six-foot frame, Naranjo is unusually patrician for a cop.
Though the son of a former Colombian police chief, Naranjo’s teen years were more bohemian than boy scout. He wore his hair long and read Kafka, Camus and papal encyclicals. He played volleyball competitively. He wobbled between studying sociology and journalism before getting hooked on police work after tagging along with some detectives on a kidnapping case.
Naranjo graduated first in his class at the police academy and, when his father retired in 1983, went into intelligence work.
That’s when his education began to get especially dangerous.
Medellin cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar would soon emerge as an existential threat to the state. In Escobar’s fight against the extradition of drug traffickers to the United States, he waged all-out war, including targeted assassinations and indiscriminate bombings of civilians.
In 1989, after Naranjo escorted out of the country his first “extraditable,” an Escobar money-launderer, the long reach of drug cartels touched him personally.
“When I returned to Bogota the next day,” he recalled, “I found my wife had to move because a funeral wreath was delivered to the small apartment where we lived that said: ‘Maj. Naranjo, Rest in Peace.’”
The Medellin cartel put a $5,000 bounty on his head. Escobar offered smaller bounties for rank-and-file policemen. About 500 were killed in Medellin alone in the worst year.
In 1991, Escobar surrendered and entered a custom-built prison he’d helped design. A few months later, he was a fugitive again.
Naranjo, who had moved to Buenos Aires, was brought back to Colombia and named intelligence chief of the “Bloque de Busqueda,” a special force formed to hunt down the arch criminal. He gave weekly briefings to a group led by the defense minister that included the top CIA and DEA officers in Colombia. And he designed the clandestine operation that led to Escobar’s killing in December 1993.
At the time, the kingpin’s family had returned to Bogota after Germany rejected its asylum request. Fearful that Escobar’s underworld foes would try to assassinate members of the family, they agreed to be put up in a residence hotel suite.
Naranjo had bugged the suite beforehand. Then he positioned himself one floor up, where, with the help of U.S. agents, he directed one of the earliest successful cellphone triangulations.
The Bloque de Busqueda’s operations chief, now retired Gen. Leonardo Gallego, said Naranjo succeeded in forcing Escobar “into errors that made him break his own strict security rules.”
Obsessed over his family’s safety, Escobar lingered too long on the phone with his son.
His location pinpointed, his fate was sealed. He was gunned down on a rooftop in Medellin while trying to make his escape.
People looking to draw lessons for today’s Mexican drug warriors from Colombia’s defeat of the Medellin cartel should not overlook the ethical compromises and dark alliances made in that epic struggle, says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drug war analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
To weaken and isolate Escobar, Colombia’s government and police allied themselves with the Cali cartel and estranged former Escobar henchmen, including men who would go on to lead the far-right militias known as paramilitaries.
The government’s criminal allies killed several hundred of Escobar’s mid-level operatives and thus paralyze the group, Felbab-Brown said.
Naranjo does not deny that bloody marriage of convenience.
It’s easy to be critical in hindsight, he says, “but when two or three car bombs are going off in Bogota, in Medellin or in Cali and there are 120 dead every week from this war, the truth is that the state and society said, ‘Do whatever you need to do to stop this.’”
That included leaning on Danilo Gonzalez, one of Naranjo’s police academy classmates who had gone rogue.
Gonzalez always had the best intelligence on Escobar, Naranjo argued, because he got it from the Cali cartel, the next big target in the U.S.-sponsored drug war.
Naranjo says that in 1995, he persuaded the incoming police director, Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, not to forcibly retire Gonzalez because the latter provided “very useful information.”
Serrano eventually forced Gonzalez out when it became clear he was deep into drug trafficking with other rogue policemen.
In 2006, Gonzalez was killed in a gangland-style shooting.
Naranjo attended the wake.
During Serrano’s 1995-2000 tenure, Naranjo gravitated to the “yuppies” — educated cops who favored well-cut suits and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the DEA, CIA and Scotland Yard. The two men purged about 10,000 police officers. During Naranjo’s time as director, nearly 2,900 were forcibly retired.
No one questions Naranjo’s effectiveness against drug traffickers and leftist rebels, but analysts say Colombia’s police under Naranjo have achieved far less on other fronts.
Kidnapping and murder are down dramatically, but criminal bands continue to thrive in the provinces, running drugs, extorting, “taxing” illegal gold mining. Colombia also remains the world’s most deadly for trade union organizers.
“The strategy of going after high-value targets has its limits,” said Maria Victoria Llorente, director of the Bogota think tank Fundacion Ideas para La Paz. “You capture the capos, but they have a great capacity for regeneration.”
That’s one reason drug decriminalization has a growing number of proponents in Latin America.
Naranjo is not among them, and his personal experience can’t help but influence his thinking.
“Drug trafficking is good at transforming values into anti-values,” he says, “and ends up enslaving societies.”
Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak
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