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Colombia’s narco-candidate

In 1997 and ’98, alert US Customs agents in California seized three Colombia-bound ships laden with 50,000 kilos of potassium permanganate, a chemical necessary for the manufacture of cocaine. According to an August 3, 2001, document signed by then–DEA chief Donnie R. Marshall, the ships had originated in Hong Kong and were each destined for Medellín, Colombia, to deliver the chemical — whose legal uses include the manufacture of printed circuit boards — to a company called GMP Productos Quimicos, S.A. (GMP Chemical Products). Over the past decade, GMP has imported huge quantities of potassium permanganate, according to Marshall, and is suspected by Colombian law enforcement of leaking the chemical to coke producers. The amount of permanganate seized before reaching GMP was enough to make a half-million kilos of cocaine, with a street value of $15 billion.

What makes this little episode of more than passing interest is that GMP Chemical Products is owned by Pedro Juan Moreno Villa, long-time right-hand man to Colombian presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe Vélez, who is expected to win the May 26 national election. Colombia’s Conservative Party threw its support to Uribe after a poor showing in the recent congressional elections. The party’s electoral disappointment stemmed from public disaffection with current Conservative Party president Andrés Pastrana’s support for the US military adventure known as Plan Colombia — an American initiative, designed to win the "War on Drugs" abroad, which has only further entrenched drug production and organized crime. Ironically, Colombian voters will likely elect Uribe, who, like his father, has been deeply immersed in the drug economy from the earliest days of his career — as evidenced, in part, by his long, intimate political association with Moreno, who is currently managing Uribe’s presidential campaign.

Alvaro Uribe’s path to Colombia’s highest office began in the city of Medellín, the capital of the province of Antioquia, in 1982. At that time, unofficial mayor Pablo Escobar, head of the notorious Medellín drug cartel, was the undisputed king of the city: nothing happened in Medellín without his permission. When Uribe became the official mayor, Medellín was a boomtown. Escobar was taking the city by storm, constructing public housing for the poor, paying taxes, and stoking Mayor Uribe’s construction of a world-class subway system. The Liberal Party, through which Uribe and Escobar rose in the same electoral wave to mayoral and legislative power, is to Antioquia what the Democratic Party is to Boston: the entire political show.

From 1995 to 1997, Uribe was governor of Antioquia, and Moreno served as his chief of staff. (During roughly the same period, from 1994 to 1998, Moreno’s GMP was also Colombia’s largest importer of permanganate.) Together, the two men oversaw the rise of paramilitary organizations in Antioquia in the mid 1990s.

This brings us back to those California permanganate seizures in 1997-’98. The shipments were seized without the usual media fanfare. Such seizures usually involve US companies, which have been heavily fined for failing to notify the DEA about potassium permanganate shipments that exceed the legal limit of 500 kilograms per month. The January 14, 2000, Hartford Courant reported, for example, that the Connecticut-based chemical firm MacDermid Inc. paid the feds $50,000 "to settle a claim involving the export of a chemical that can be used to synthesize cocaine" for just that reason. And, the Courant reported, MacDermid was selling the chemical to "legitimate buyers." In contrast, GMP was not fined a single devalued Colombian peso by the US government.

The Customs Service, the DEA, and other US law-enforcement agencies were caught in a public-relations disaster. Their agents did their job. And the bureaucrats in Washington spent more than three years trying to cover it up. The permanganate traffickers — not content to be on the road to the Colombian presidency, they also wanted to collect their tips — fought from early 1998 until mid 2001, in a case before DEA administrative-law judge Gail Randall, to avoid legal penalties and to get their 50,000 kilos back. If the Justice Department had fined GMP, it would have unleashed a chain of events embarrassing to Moreno and, consequently, to presidential candidate Uribe Vélez. It would have interfered with Washington’s electoral plans for Colombia: to weaken all other potential candidates (those who are still alive and not in captivity) and install Uribe as the next Colombian president.

Perhaps because he was at the end of his term, or perhaps because his own DEA troops were already furious with the bureaucratic cover-ups of the California seizures, then–DEA chief Marshall rejected the non-binding recommendation of the administrative-law judge and ordered the 50,000 kilos permanently seized. It is only because Marshall went public with his findings that we now know the intricacies of Moreno’s operation.

The bottom line is this: coca grows on trees in Colombia, and the military, paramilitaries, police, rebels, and poor farmers will be battling in vain for control of the coca-leaf market for decades to come. But the person who controls the potassium permanganate market in Colombia — a product that must be imported from continents far away — truly controls the global traffic of processed cocaine. The same standards set by Moreno’s GMP company will no doubt be applied when Moreno and Uribe — and their customers from the ranks of the narcos and paramilitary groups — get their mitts on the entire Colombian military and law-enforcement complex, as well as on Plan Colombia’s $2 billion.

Perhaps that is Washington’s intent. It would not be the first time that United States officials backed a presidential candidate in Latin America who, once elected, could be easily blackmailed and controlled because of his documented narco history: the likes of Pinochet, Noriega, Salinas, Zedillo, Menem, Banzer, and Fujimori all come to mind.

To read Giordano’s story in full, complete with documentation of his sources, see

Issue Date: March 28 - April 4, 2002
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