Colombia's legendary police chief heads to Mexico

Associated Press Modified: June 15, 2012 at 12:46 pm •  Published: June 15, 2012

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.

Trending Now


  1. 1
    Eva Mendes, Ryan Gosling pregnancy sparks Twitter shock from fans - NY Daily News
  2. 2
    Advocates for blind, deaf want more from Apple
  3. 3
    World Cup Fan Scores Modeling Gig From Cheering
  4. 4
    University of Pittsburgh student seeks assistance to pay for college after parents cut her off...
  5. 5
    Author on How Not to Get Gored by Bulls ... Is Gored by Bull
+ show more