Extradition, Nationalism, and Presidential Legitimacy in Belisario Betancur’s Colombia
HIS 400: Revolution and Counterrevolution in 20th Century Latin America
Professor Robert Karl
January 6, 2015
My name is Jamie Shenk, and I am in the Department of History at Princeton University pursuing certificates in Latin American Studies and Global Health and Health Policy. I will graduate in June 2016. Thank you for your consideration.
“When I say that I will make a national government, I mean ‘national’ that includes everyone, for the good of everyone… not only for the desires of the political class or only those privileged groups with the power to make themselves heard by the public administration.”1 With this assertion, the 1982 presidential candidate, Belisario Betancur, introduced a new model for Colombian politics. The Colombian political system was in the midst of a contentious transition. The end of the sixteen-year long National Front period in 1974 facilitated a reevaluation of the political system as a new generation of leaders attuned to popular politics advocated for inclusion beyond the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties. However, the power of the entrenched political elite proved a formidable barrier for the transition to a truly democratic system. Thus, the success of politicians like Betancur depended on their ability to balance their plans to address the needs of the general populace with the desires of the traditional ruling class, all the while navigating a highly bureaucratic system. Meanwhile, the rising influence of the drug mafia and its permeation through all levels of Colombian society and politics added another dimension to these political tensions.
The debate over the extradition of Colombian nationals in the early half of the 1980s provides a useful lens to examine Betancur’s struggle for presidential legitimacy. The national dialogue about extradition and the drug mafia raised broader concerns about Colombian governance, incorporating questions of sovereignty, citizenship, and the limits of government power. Interestingly, Betancur supported both sides of the debate during his presidency, first denying, then approving, extradition requests from the United States. To explain this reversal, this paper will explore the political and social contexts that motivated these seemingly contradictory decisions. First, this paper will discuss the denial of the US extradition request for Emiro de Jesus Mejía as an attempt to legitimize Betancur’s presidency by affirming the domestic focus of his administration through a strengthening of state institutions. Second, this paper will examine Betancur’s invocation of the extradition treaty after the drug mafia’s assassination of Justice Minster Rodrigo Lara Bonilla’s as an effort to reestablish state control. I argue that a shift in the Colombian public’s priorities from enacting political reform to combatting the drug mafia in the aftermath of Lara’s assassination forced Betancur to reverse his stance on extradition; Betancur’s ability to frame both decisions within his broader nationalist political goals, however, allowed him to use both the denial and application of the extradition treaty as political tools to consolidate popular support for his administration.
Scholars of this period in Colombian history tend to exclude the majority of Betancur’s presidency from their analysis of extradition and the drug crisis in Colombia and begin their narrative around 1985 when the drug mafia’s violence escalated in an attempt to dissuade the government from enforcing extradition. Thus, historians tend to focus on Betancur’s peace process with the armed guerrilla groups and economic policy as the hallmarks of his presidency. This narrative affords the drug mafia and Lara’s assassination only a cursory description. However, extending this time period earlier to include Betancur’s decision on the Mejía extradition case complicates the prevailing narrative of Colombia’s role vis-à-vis the United States in the war against drugs. Scholars of the era, like the Colombian sociologist, Francisco Leal Buitrago, argue that the Colombian government exerted little autonomy in forming their policies on drug trafficking. Instead, official government policies “mirrored” US initiatives and therefore reflected US interests and control over the region.3 Betancur’s decisions, however, indicate a more complex set of motives. An analysis of his decisions on extradition in 1983 and 1984 indicates that he responded more to domestic concerns over sovereignty and security, sometimes directly challenging US pressures.2
A Broken System
To understand the political context of Betancur’s administration, it is necessary to examine the legacy of the National Front period of Colombian politics, which created the framework for the issues that Betancur would grapple with. Colombia’s democratic system holds the honor of being one of the oldest in the Western hemisphere, a fact often cited by scholars of the region for its uniqueness in a region characterized by a history of dictatorships and military regimes.3 However, Colombia’s democratic system did not necessarily engender truly democratic processes, an issue exemplified by the National Front’s rule from 1958-1974. After the long period of partisan violence known simply as La Violencia and subsequent rule by the military dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, the leading families of the two traditional political parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, designed what Colombian historian Marco Palacios describes as a “gentlemen’s agreement.” The ruling class’s compromise consisted of a set of alliances and truces to split lower levels of government between the two parties and alternate the presidency every four years.4
While the coalition prevented violent clashes between Liberals and Conservatives, the rigidity of its structure rendered the political system unable to address the needs of a rapidly changing populace. Between 1951 and the time Betancur took office in 1982, the urban population exploded, climbing from 40 percent to 65 percent of the total population.5 Urbanization caused problems beyond strains on cities’ infrastructure and employment; it changed the country’s political landscape. For example, the rapid migration resulted in a breakdown of the traditional dichotomy between Liberal and Conservatives. With few real differences between the political agendas of the two parties, Colombians historically had inherited their affiliations as Liberal or Conservative as they inherited their family name. For example, a profile on Betancur in the popular news magazine Semana attributed his membership of the Conservative party to it being a product of his “being born a Betancur. It was inevitable. If he had been born a Cano he would be Liberal.”6 Urbanization broke this pattern. When Colombians moved from the countryside to the major cities of Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín they left their political affiliations behind with their family homes, creating a new party-less class. With power entrenched in the ruling class and without a true opposition, however, the National Front had little incentive to react to social changes and acknowledge new sources of power.7 National Front historians, including Colombians like Leal, agree that the political system’s inability to react to “the most pressing concerns of the country” and subsequent loss of legitimacy functioned as a primary motivation to end the National Front in 1974.
The official end of the National Front, however, did not immediately usher in significant changes in the political system. The election of Alfonso López Michelsen technically represented the start of the post-National Front period, but none of the candidates offered a true alternative to the traditional ruling class. Perhaps the most indicative representation of the entrenchment of the political elite lies in the familial ties of the candidates in the 1974 election—all were children of former presidents.8 Four years later, López Michelsen’s presidency had done little to restore Colombians’ faith in the political process and the government’s crisis of legitimacy continued with increasing voter apathy. Only 34% of eligible voters participated in the 1978 presidential election with turnout even lower in urban areas that were not under the influence of rural political bosses.9 Even so, the 1978 election featured hints of change, as Betancur, the Conservative candidate proposed a new style of Colombian politics.
“The Non-conformist that Colombia Needs”
Betancur’s campaigns in 1978 and 1982 promised the Colombian people a new era of politics that also created a new era of expectations that would shape the extradition debate. Beginning with his campaign in 1978, Betancur eschewed traditional party politics in favor of a program built on nationalism and resolved to create a “democratic opening” to dissolve the National Front’s legacy of exclusivity. Designed as a reversal of the past twenty years of Colombia’s political history rather than an ideology in itself, Betancur’s nationalism took a broad definition. First, although he operated as a member of the Conservative party, Betancur framed his Movimiento Nacional as an option divorced from the traditional Liberal/Conservative dichotomy by arguing that Colombia’s problems were national issues, “neither Conservative or Liberal.”10 According to Francisco Thoumi and Rensselaer W. Lee’s regionalist analysis of the Colombian drug trade, this represented a substantial break from the country’s history. Colombia, they argue, had no tradition of nationalism, due, at least in part, to the country’s rugged geography, which created a decentralized state. In the absence of a strong central government, Colombians identified first and foremost by political party as decided by their local leaders.11 While this analysis may be especially true for the department of Antioquia, the home of the Medellín cartel and a region known for its pride, and urbanization may have diminished this trend elsewhere, Betancur’s substitution of nationalism for traditional party politics represented a significant change in political rhetoric.
After losing to the Liberal candidate, Julio César Turbay Ayala, in 1978, Betancur expanded his nationalist platform for the 1982 election to highlight the failures of Turbay’s administration. Reacting to political violence by armed guerrilla groups and US pressure to address the marijuana trade in the Guajira peninsula, Turbay’s administration had implemented severe restrictions on civil rights, including the invocation of the State of Siege statute in all departments. The statute served as a perfect embodiment of the political system’s legacy of repression. It allowed the president to rule by decree and the use of military tribunals to try civilians accused of political crimes.12 Due to its restrictive measures, the State of Siege thus became associated with a certain “psychological environment” of fear among the general public.13 As a result, the State of Siege became a focal point for Betancur’s campaign. Betancur expanded his definition of nationalism to include the protection of all citizens’ political rights and the reversal of Turbay’s repressive tactics. In an interview with Semana, the candidate clarified the Movimiento Nacional’s mission, stating, “’national’ means that I will seek real participation from the communities whose destinies will be shaped by our decisions” and reiterated his commitment to pursuing a peace process with the guerrillas groups.14 Furthermore, his rejection of Turbay’s policies indicated his intention to build an administration with a domestic and regional focus that would prioritize the needs of Colombians rather than submit to US pressures.
It is important to note that Betancur was neither the first, nor the only politician advocating for political reform. Turbay’s opponent for the Liberal candidacy in 1978, Carlos Lleras Restrepo, was also a vocal critic of Colombian politics. However, one could argue that Lleras represented a flawed spokesperson for a political opening, as his own family name—one of the most storied in the Liberal party—undermined his critique.15 Betancur’s family history, on the other hand, lent him more credibility. Born in a small town in Antioquia as one of 22 children of a muleteer, Betancur’s upbringing distinguished him from the insular political elite. He was a perennial outsider despite his long career in the Conservative party.16 Recognizing this advantage, Betancur emphasized this distinction throughout his campaigns to legitimate both his conviction to change the political system and his commitment to programs addressing poverty. Betancur’s outsider status allowed him to employ a moralistic tone in his criticism of the political system and assert a unique ability to “destroy the existing political chieftanships. I can do it because I have no connections to them, because I owe them nothing.”17 Meanwhile, he used personal stories of the deaths of 17 of his siblings in childhood to “an illness called ‘underdevelopment'” to illustrate his commitment to Colombians ignored by the interests of the ruling class.18 Betancur not only promised programs and reforms that would change politics, but also as a leader born far outside the political elite he represented a change in itself that no other politician could offer.
Betancur’s promise for a democratic opening and his emphasis on social programs, like affordable housing and other programs aimed to alleviate poverty and support Colombians struggling through the country’s economic crisis yielded wide popular support for his candidacy. Consequentially, historians generally characterize Betancur as populist leader. However, throughout his campaign, Betancur carefully avoided that label, even when asked explicitly if he was a populist.19 His decision demonstrated a shrewd awareness of the many factors at play in the electoral system recognizing that the term’s historical association with ANAPO might seem overly threatening to the political elite. In fact, in his Semana interview, Betancur skillfully evaded any question designed to stir controversy, steering questions about his plan for amnesty for guerillas or social programs back to a reaffirmation of his broader themes of nationalism and the need to dismantle the traditional political system. His tactic ultimately proved successful when on May 30, 1982, Betancur was declared the new president of the Republic.
Most historiographical narratives attribute Betancur’s electoral victory to a split in the Liberal party between two candidates, former president López and an upstart politician, Luis Carlos Galán. With this narrative, historians draw comparisons between the 1982 election and the two other instances, in 1930 and 1946, when control shifted from one party to the other because of a split in votes. This explanation, however, ignores the unifying force that Betancur’s campaign had on voters from both parties as the first instance that a candidate had reached across party lines for support. A breakdown of the electoral results supports this argument. The election not only inspired the biggest voter turnout seen in years, “demolishing,” as Semana described, “the traditional myth of an apathetic and abstentionist Colombian electorate.” More importantly, it also upset traditional voting patterns that usually reflected geographic party distribution. Liberal strongholds like the coastal region and urban areas did the unimaginable by voting for Betancur. To many Colombians’ surprise, “bastion[s] of liberalism” Barranquilla, which López Michelsen had dominated before the election; Bogotá, which teemed with Galán supporters; along with Cali, Medellín, and Cartagena went for Betancur. An article published after Betancur’s victory summarized the election succinctly: “it is the triumph of a man, not a party.”20
The election offered Colombians a new sense of hope. The country seemed almost incredulous; an opinion piece noted that Betancur’s “displacement of votes from one party to the other is a phenomenon of democracies more advanced than ours.” That the transfer of power occurred through clean elections merited even greater excitement. Truly democratic elections were an anomaly in Latin America, a region beset by coups and military regimes and with four major countries, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, still under military rule. Nervous anticipation, however, tempered this hope. The same article warned that Betancur’s great triumph brought risk with its accomplishment; Betancur’s promises for monumental changes set high expectations. If Betancur succeeded, he would be “the spearhead of a new force that could alter our traditional political equation.” His failure, however, would relegate his election “to just a parenthesis” within Colombia’s political history.21 These concerns would heighten the stakes for the extradition debate, particularly as Betancur’s plan for nationalistic reform faltered under challenges from multiple sectors.
Opening the political system after more than twenty years of the political elite domination, Betancur’s administration faced the unique challenge of balancing two competing and often contradictory sources of power: the popular class that had elected him and the existing political bureaucracy that he had to work within. Betancur’s election, while representing monumental triumph of popular politics, did not inherently change the bureaucracy of the political system, which remained governed by party politics and a small political elite. This immediately proved problematic for the new president. Though Betancur’s campaign engendered him to the general populace, the ruling class who controlled the bureaucracy greeted him with instinctual hostility. As Palacios posits, Betancur’s outsider status, a chief selling point of his campaign, was also “his chief liability” in his interactions with the exclusive political elite, particularly since his platform explicitly threatened their oligarchy.22 Party politics within his government only exacerbated this issue.
Betancur’s nationalist rhetoric united voters from both Liberal and Conservative parties for the presidential election, but did not unite the political system. Betancur entered office facing a Liberal congressional majority, and to the frustration of the Colombian public, Betancur’s need for political support to force controversial legislation, like his social programs and the peace process, forced the president to acknowledge the need to appease the opposition. However, this also proved complicated with the Liberal party itself split between followers of Turbay and López’s traditional politics and Galán’s New Liberalism movement. The chain of resignations from Betancur’s political commission in early 1983 illustrated the tensions between these two Liberal factions. Shortly after his inauguration, Betancur attempted to placate his opponents by appointing Liberals to his political commission, assigning Rodrigo Escobar Navia to the important post of Government Minister. Less than a year later, Escobar abruptly resigned from his post. In his resignation letter, Escobar stated he felt that he could not continue to represent the Liberal party in its totality and alluded to a lack of support from his own party.23 Subsequent resignations by other ministers forced Betancur to restructure his entire political commission.
In addition to unveiling tensions within the Liberal party, this restructuring also raised concerns among the Colombian populace, as prominent journalists like María Isabel Rueda questioned if Betancur’s decisions demonstrated a lack of control over his own government.24 The appointment of Escobar’s replacement, Alfonso Gómez Gómez, heightened concern. Many perceived the choice of Gómez, a traditional Liberal, to be the product of Liberal maneuvering representative of previous tactics, such as those that had facilitated Turbay’s election. This led to harsh criticism by the public in newspapers like El Espectador, as well as by progressive Liberals like Galán, who called Gómez’s appointment a “a few steps backwards” for Betancur’s promise to dismantle the ruling class hegemony of the political system.25 This episode also illustrated a greater trend in the public’s perception of the president. Colombians were growing increasingly frustrated with Betancur’s slow progress in implementing his promised programs. This frustration would play a role in informing Betancur’s decisions regarding extradition.
In addition to his difficulties maneuvering within the political bureaucracy, Betancur also faced the growing issue of the drug trade and its disintegration of political integrity and rule of law. High rates of urbanization continued during the post-National Front years, contributing to rising levels of unemployment, particularly in cities like Medellín, where urbanization also coincided with a decline in the city’s main industry, textiles.26 Palacios argues that urbanization, combined with economic stagnation that Turbay’s government had failed to correct may have contributed to the rise of drug trafficking, a crime he describes as born of an urban society under hypercompetitive capitalism.27 Historian, Mary Roldán, who as a the daughter of a landowning family in Medellín, watched the region change firsthand, presents a narrative of the drug trade as a more disruptive force. She posits that the cocaine boom transformed the city’s culture to value a new standard of wealth, citing the popular saying that “no one knew how poor Medellín’s rich really were until the arrival of the cocaine Mafia.”28 Martz offers a similar, if more tempered analysis. The drug trade, he argues, quickly became the best way for Colombians with few options to “rise within the stratified class system and better themselves financially.”29 Regardless of the reason, all scholars agree that the drug trade grew rapidly during the 1970s. Colombia’s history as a hub for the smuggling of other goods, such as emeralds, facilitated the trade’s early expansion, which allowed traffickers to build onto existing routes and infrastructure. Furthermore, despite Turbay’s use of military tactics to squash the drug trade, by the early 1980s, the drug mafia’s influence had become an integral part of Colombian society and politics. Politician’s responses to the drug mafia varied from an implicit acceptance to categorical rejection, a position voiced most forcefully by Galán.30 This range of attitudes reflected the complicated relationship that existed between the illicit trade and Colombian politics.
The power of the drug trade in Colombia created a paradox wherein traffickers served as both a stabilizing and destabilizing force for the country. On one hand, Colombia’s economy heavily relied on drug trade profits. Palacios describes drugs as one of the three key legs of Colombia’s external trade along with coffee and oil. He argues that the government in fact facilitated the exchange by opening the “sinister window” at the central bank where dollars could be exchanged for pesos, no questions asked. Palacios further claims that the importance of the drug trade’s profits and its possibilities as investment capital provided a basis for the acceptance of the “emerging bourgeoisie” of drug traffickers into the mainstream, particularly in light of Colombia’s “tradition of fortunes based on contraband and tax evasion making the transition to respectability.”31 Drug traffickers’ charitable contributions to their communities worked toward that end by bolstering their public image, while the press’s coverage often supported that image. For example, an article published by Semana in 1983 entitled “Un Robin Hood paisa” documented Pablo Escobar’s building of public housing in his home city of Medellín, but never mentioned the illegal origin of his wealth.32 Thus, the public usually accepted the trade as a simple fact of life in Colombia. Furthermore, Restrepo argues that the drug mafia’s primary goal of self-enrichment lent to its stabilizing power. Unlike guerrilla groups, the mafia had no desire to change the state structure. Instead, drug traffickers like Pablo Escobar aimed to gain acceptance into the political and economic elite and in fact were “among the regime’s most ardent defenders.”33 Other Colombian scholars like Leal are more critical of the trade in their analyses, but their work was likely influenced by contemporary events; Leal, for instance, published much of his work at the height of the drug mafia’s violent period in the late 1980s and early 1990s.