Last week President Clinton flew to Colombia to commit the United States to an additional $1.3 billion campaign to take on an army of guerrillas who have gone into the drug trade and who are trying to take over the government.
This is only the latest battle in a secret war America has been fighting in Colombia for most of the 1990s, as 60 Minutes II noted when it first reported this story in September 1999. That war was started to take out Colombia's drug lords and was fought by secret warriors trained by the United States.
Click here to read the September 1999 report and the September 2000 update:
September 1999 Report
For years, many may have thought Columbian drug lords were arrested or killed. But there is more to the story: Some were brought down in one of Americas largest covert operations in recent years.
This operation has been, in effect, an undeclared war, going on for a decade in Colombia and costing millions of dollars and hundreds of lives. It may be on the verge of a significant escalation.
60 Minutes II Correspondent Dan Rather talked to some of those who helped organize this campaign and went to Colombia to meet the elite corps of secret warriors fighting it.
The group is called the Copes Commandos - a small, U.S.-trained strike force of deadly warriors. Since 1992, they have been fighting Americas secret war on drugs in the jungles of Colombia.
One of the men who trained them is former U.S. Marine Major Gil Macklin, who had never spoken publicly about this mission before talking to Rather.
Macklin described the Copes as the direct action force of the Colombian National Police: "They're like the Delta force. They are honed on a regular basis to go, on a moment's notice, to do anything at any time."
In the early 1990s, the United States started backing the Copes for one mission - to take down the Colombian drug lords and wipe out their cartels.
Among their chief targets was the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. Eighty percent of the cocaine consumed in America came from his cartel. His assassins murdered anyone who got in his way - and even took out a presidential candidate at a nationally televised rally.
But when he reportedly ordered the bombing of an Avianca passenger plane, with five Americans on board, Escobar's reign of terror suddenly hit home.
According to the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Morris Busby, the bombing, which killed more than 120 people, was carried out to assassinate just one man, who happened to be on the plane. Busby calls Escoba a "monster."
Escobar was killed in 1993; details of how he was killed have never been revealed.
President George Bush was so outraged he ordered the beginning of a secret war to take him down. He chose Ambassador Busby, a former Navy Seal, to do it. Busby turned the U.S. embassy into a war command and dispatched Major Macklin to start forming the small army now known as the Copes Commandos.
Macklin set up shop at an ancient Jesuit mission at the foot of the Andes. His job was to find a few good men - young, uncorrupted and prepared to die for their country.
"At the tip of the spear were these young farm boys from the valleys, the hills, the mountains and jungles of Colombia who came from nothing," Macklin said.
Macklin gave these men a crash course in the art of killing. Day and night, they received the kind of training only special forces receive, shooting live ammunition inches from each other's heads. Macklin taught them his philosophy - kill or be killed - and the tactic of surprise.
Said Macklin: "These men kill without compunction and die without complaint. There is one solution, and their solution is to accomplish the mission in one piece."
General Rosso Jose Serrano, a Colombian police commander, was chosen to take them into battle. At a time when thousands of police were on cartel payrolls, General Serrano was considered incorruptible. And for him and his 120 commandos, the mission against the drug lords was a moral crusade.
"We are the law," Serrano said. "We are the authority and our obligation is to capture whoever is on the bad people's side. We are the people who represent the good."
That's how the commandos saw themselves: devout Catholics in a war against evil. Before each mission they would gather at the chapel at the center of their base.
"St. Michael, the archangel, defend us in battle," they would pray. "Be our protection against the wickedness and the snares, the devil. Guide us on our journey, protect us along the way, until we come home to the loving arms of Jesus."
It is a prayer Macklin knew well, not just as a soldier, but as a seminarian. Before joining the Marines, he had trained as a priest.
Macklin and his secret army may have had faith that God was watching over them. But they also believed in something else: the high-tech weaponry that Ambassador Busby delivered, courtesy of the most powerful war machine on earth.
"We spared nothing in trying to use all of the intelligence we could find on a worldwide basis to pass to the Colombians to try and find him," Busby said about Escobar.
He said that the forces used information from the Drug Enforcement Administration, CIA, FBI and Special Forces. It was the most coordinated effort that Busby, an international terrorism expert, has ever seen.
In the summer and fall of 1992, the mission began. They moved systematically. To get to Escobar, the commandos had tfirst eliminate each and every one of his lieutenants. The search for Escobar, spanning a year and a half, was one of the most intense manhunts ever mounted.
"Well, the strategy that was followed," said Busby, "was, first and foremost always go for him. He was the kingpin; he was the person we wanted."
"So we were always looking for him. But he was well protected; he was in a cocoon," Busby added. "So the second part of the strategy was: Strip away his lieutenants, strip away all of his money, go after his infrastructure."
"Take down everything that protects him, and that was done on a very systematic and organized basis," he said.
The commandos conducted hundreds of raids, going against the best protection that Escobar's millions could buy. The forces gradually eliminated those surrounding Escobar - nearly a hundred lieutenants in his private army.
The Copes took heavy casualties, with many killed by Escobar's hit men. "The price they paid in flesh and blood is enormous," Macklin said.
Two years after the commandos began training, American intelligence finally cornered Escobar.
Busby said that Escobar was talking on the phone to his son, when a police van rolled up the street. He realized something was wrong, told his son he had to go and ran up the stairs. He got as far as the roof, where the commandos gunned him down.
Escobar's net worth has been estimated at $9 billion. He was 44 when he died. Busby called the operation a "great success." Macklin had no second thoughts either.
For Macklin and his Copes Commandos, it will be remembered as their finest hour. But it was a triumph that could only be shared in private. Of the 120 Copes he trained, half died in action. As Macklin saw it, they died fighting America's war.
Major Macklin was one of the Americans who trained the Copes Commandos, but the man who led them into battle was General Serrano. After tackling Escobar, he went on to eliminate Colombia's remaining drug lords, including the Cali cartel.
But the drug trade is still flourishing, and the general, with the help of the United States, has opened up a new front in this secret war.
Not surprisingly, when General Serrano travels, he is escorted by an army of security. He is a living symbol of the war against the drug trade in his own country. A lot of people would like to see him dead, especially those who have taken up the drug trade where the cartels left off.
The new drug lords are Marxist guerrillas. They are funding their war against General Serrano and the government of Colombia with drug money, according to Barry McCaffrey, America's drug czar.
"These insurgent forces are fueled by massive amounts of money that produce shiny new uniforms, planes, helicopters and more automatic weapons in their battalions than the Colombian army," said McCaffrey, who has called on President Clinton to spend a billion dollars to help counter his new threat by helping the armed forces and police of various Latin American countries.
"The situation is veering out of control," he said. "And we need to step in and stand with the forces of democracy."
While debate began over McCaffrey's proposed billion-dollar aid package, the Copes Commandos already started to move in on key guerrilla positions. For them, the war on drugs never ends.
September 2000 Update
For some, the sad truth about the drug war is that getting rid of one enemy seems only to bring on another even more menacing one.
And as the Clinton administration launches its new $1.3 billion anti-drug offensive in Colombia, it may be sobering to realize that the United States is talking about taking on an entire guerrilla army.
A cautionary note here: The Copes Commandos will be part of this campaign, but only a small part. The lion's share of U.S. aid will go to training and supporting the Colombian army, a force better known for corruption and human rights violation than its combat valor.