BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Searching two hideaways used in recent attacks by cocaine traffickers, Colombian police late last month discovered vast caches of weapons, radios and disguises, enough to outfit a small army.
Not just stunned but awed, police investigators were not even able at first to identify some of the sophisticated arms spread out before them. There, hidden behind cement walls in secret alcoves, lay rows of automatic weapons made in the United States, Austria and Israel; telescopic sights, silencers and infrared scopes for night vision; box after box of cartridges of various calibers; piles of uniforms taken from the armed forces or state enterprises; stolen license plates; several high-frequency communication radios; and an assortment of masks, wigs and false beards used for disguises.
Confronting the arsenal, pictures of which were splashed across the nation's front pages, a senior Colombian law enforcer shuddered. "The fight is so unequal," said Francisco Bernal, head of the antinarcotics division in the attorney general's office.
It was Bernal's boss, Attorney Gen. Carlos Mauro Hoyos Jimenez, who was killed two weeks ago after several carloads of gunmen ambushed his car on its way to the airport in Medellin, easily picking off the driver and the single bodyguard riding inside.
Now Bernal sits in his downtown Bogota office, worrying that he may be next on the cocaine cartel's hit list. Two bodyguards mill around outside. Bernal says they have little training. He has been issued a revolver, which he wears on his hip. But he has yet to learn how to use it.
For many Colombians, the killing of Hoyos and the earlier kidnaping of Andres Pastrana, one of Colombia's young political stars, have been fresh reminders of the power of the cocaine lords to do what they want in this country. Against the traffickers' money and might, Colombian authorities appear overwhelmed.
The problem is more than just the fact that a majority of Colombia's police carry M1 carbines -- a weapon designed over five decades ago -- against the high-tech armaments of the traffickers. Numerous politicians, judges and law enforcement officers are said to be in the pay of the drug barons. Others face frequent death threats.
Dozens of murders in recent years have instilled fear in most Colombians of challenging the Medellin Cartel, the name given a trafficking conglomerate that is reported to control more than 70 percent of the cocaine smuggled to the United States.
But as powerful as they are -- former president Belisario Betancur recently called the cartel "an organization stronger than the state" -- there is one thing the traffickers admit to fearing above all else: extradition to the United States.
It is not known which traffickers were behind the latest attacks, but it is widely assumed the operations had the blessing of at least some leading cartel members and that they intended to warn the government against reviving extradition -- which Colombia's Supreme Court effectively suspended last year. Identifying themselves in communiques as "the extraditables," the traffickers said they would prefer "a tomb in Colombia to a jail in the United States."
But some politicians, diplomats and journalists here suspect the drugmen's new offensive may involve something more ominous than simply an attempt to block extradition. The suspicion is that the cartel may be trying now to destabilize Colombia's elected civilian government.
The traffickers' purpose could be just to widen their own maneuvering room or it could be to pave the way for a military coup, some say.
Speculation about a coup stems from the friendlier ties that some cartel members maintain with some military authorities as a result not only of payoffs but of shared ultrarightist political ideology. According to legal officials, some military officers and extreme right-wing businessmen have been collaborating with the cocaine kingpins in a wave of assassinations against leftist politicians and dissidents.
But the coup scenario has some holes. It is not clear, for instance, what more the traffickers would gain by toppling a civilian regime they have already overpowered. Moreover, the armed forces have not shown an interest in taking power.
Colombia has been less prone to military takeovers than other Latin American states, having lived the last three decades under democracy. Despite widespread violence, many of the country's basic institutions remain strong.
In any case, according to police, the traffickers had planned a series of kidnapings intended to strike more deeply at Colombia's political establishment.
Pastrana, a Bogota mayoral candidate and son of a former president, was just to be the first. Representatives of the Congress, Catholic Church and executive branch reportedly were targeted to be seized as hostages for negotiations the cartel sought with the government. The assault on Hoyos, it is thought, was intended to be a kidnaping but ended in his being killed after he was gravely wounded in the ambush.
In opposing extradition, meantime, the traffickers already have lots of company. Opinion polls show that about two-thirds of all Colombians are against extradition, regarding it as a violation of national sovereignty and wanting to avoid more drug violence.
Frightened by the cartel's formal declaration of war issued last month and by its attacks on Hoyos and Pastrana -- who was discovered unharmed and freed -- even formerly staunch backers of extradition are reconsidering. Some have lashed out at the United States for forcing the issue and have urged the Reagan administration to back off.
"Is the United States ready to revise its position on extradition, or does it prefer to sacrifice Colombia?" asked Rafael Santos, managing editor of the leading Bogota daily El Tiempo, in a commentary late last month.
U.S. policy continues to be to ask for the extradition of wanted cartel members. But U.S. officials hint that demands for extradition might be dropped if the traffickers were actually brought to justice in Colombia. Based on past experience, though, many people doubt the ability of Colombian jails to hold, or local courts to convict, the drug barons.
A senior government official said President Virgilio Barco had hoped to find some kind of political consensus that would allow him to reestablish extradition, but this has seemed impossible given deep disagreements between branches of government and within the Cabinet, not only over whether to extradite but, if so, on what legal basis.
The Supreme Court, acting under the shadow of death threats from traffickers, ruled last June that a 1979 U.S.-Colombian extradition treaty could no longer be applied because its implementing legislation had been improperly adopted. Thirteen Colombian traffickers (and three of other nationalities) had already been surrendered to the United States; dozens more were being sought.
New extradition legislation is considered unlikely to pass the Colombian Congress. Alternatively, some government lawyers have said the executive branch could extradite on its own authority under an 1888 treaty.
But Justice Minister Enrique Low Murtra has argued that this treaty was revoked by the 1979 treaty. He has recommended using an inter-American accord of 1933 known as the Montevideo Convention. This, however, would require the Supreme Court to approve each extradition -- something Court members are trying to avoid. They favor the 1888 treaty, which would leave responsibility for extradition solely in the president's hands.
With so much evident reluctance to join in defying the traffickers, Barco has decided not to act alone on extradition for now, according to a senior government official. Looking abroad for more understanding of the problems here and possibly some way out, the Colombian leader has reiterated a call for more international cooperation in combatting drug trafficking.