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Colombia's legendary top cop heads to Mexico

By Frank Bajak
Associated Press

BOGOTA, Colombia — 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.

Copyright 2012 Associated Press

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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