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Spreading Excellence

Oscar Naranjo earned high marks from his fellow Colombians as head of the police force—Now he takes on a new challenge

By Juan Miguel Mora

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In order to spread excellence one must have some, and four-star General Oscar Naranjo had enough to transform the DNA of the entire Colombian police force. Naranjo, the 55-year-old retired police director, played a central role in the capture or death of nearly every top Colombian drug trafficker, beginning with Pablo Escobar.

His 36-year career in Colombia, the last five as commander of 170,000 policemen, coincided with his country’s tough journey from the verge of chaos to becoming a case study for other regional countries embroiled in drug wars. After leaving his post as chief of the Colombian police department, Naranjo became Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto’s adviser in the fight against drug trafficking and opened the Latin American Institute of Citizenship at the renowned Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey, or TEC.

When he left Colombia, Naranjo’s approval ratings were as high as any other public figure save Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s former president. That was a testament to how well Naranjo exercised his authority as head of such a large and complex institution that continuously impacts the lives of Colombians. President Juan Manuel Santos expressed regret over Naranjo’s departure but welcomed his help as an advisor in the future. This promise became a reality in September when Santos named Naranjo part of the government’s team to negotiate with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the guerrilla group known as the FARC. In Mexico, Naranjo is starting a new life with his wife and two daughters, who might be his heroes due to the patience and understanding they’ve shown while following him through a long and difficult career. PODER spoke with Naranjo as he was beginning his work and life in Mexico.

[PODER Hispanic] General, what exactly will you be doing in Mexico and what won’t you be doing?

[oscar naranjo] My role as an external consultant is outside of the hierarchal structure of the government and won’t have any operational or executive interference, participation or responsibility. What I will be doing is using my knowledge and experience in the development of public politics to encourage processes and dynamics that inspire the Mexican leadership.

[PH] What is your project with TEC?
[on] We are very ambitious about the project we have in collaboration with TEC and we’re hoping it will make a great impact in Latin America. The initiative to bring life to the Latin American Institute of Citizenship is an expression of the interest among Mexican academia and the private sector to strengthen and humanize the citizenry in order to raise the quality of democracy. The institute will mainly be an integrating force to share experiences, lessons and knowledge about good citizen practices.

[PH] President Felipe Calderon has been greatly criticized for a war on drugs that has left almost 60,000 dead in the last six years. What is your view on this?
[on] I value the courage and decisiveness of President Calderon’s fight against crime. What is important now is to identify and capitalize on the strategies that work well, make adjustments that generate more efficiency, and to introduce new elements to public policy that help guarantee an end to the violence.

[PH] Newly elected president Enrique Peña Nieto has good political wherewithal, but do you believe he has enough substance to lead the country during a time of severe security crisis? 
[on] The people of Mexico have granted him through a democratic electoral process the honor of leading their nation in a time of crisis. What matters now is to provide him with all the right tools and support that he needs and trust that his political agenda will be implemented accordingly.

[PH] Do you feel that it is necessary to cooperate with the U.S. to win the war against the drug traffickers?
[on] Because the drug trade is an international crime, we must face this phenomenon along with international allies. The U.S. is a fundamental player in this and has been a valued ally in cases in Colombia. Still, Mexico defines its relationship with the U.S. based on its foreign policy.

[PH] What advice would you give to people like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman?
[on] The only option that criminals have is to surrender themselves to the law. The cartel leaders in Mexico need to understand that their only possible future is to turn themselves in to the authorities because otherwise they will be caught and persecuted sooner or later.

[PH] How is it possible to have an honorable police force if their pay is so low and the narcos are able to bribe them with much more money?
[on] Improving the ethical and moral code of a police force doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to compete with the drug traffickers in monetary terms. Fundamentally, an ethical attitude and behavior begins by sustaining discipline and responsibility and allowing emotional compensation to surpass monetary compensation. Emotional satisfaction means dignifying the profession of law enforcement and sending the message that officers’ commitment to abide by the law is the foundation of the development and prosperity of the citizens.

[PH] Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has initiated peace talks with the FARC. Why is this different than failed efforts by previous governments?
[on] On behalf of the president, I have been given the immense responsibility and his vote of confidence to be part of the negotiating team with the FARC. Therefore it is with my utmost discretion and commitment to take on this new challenge. I am convinced that President Juan Manuel Santos will put forth his best efforts and face a reality that evidently will open the doors of peace that all Colombians yearn for.

[PH] Colombia polls show you as the most popular man in the country and there has been talk you could be a presidential candidate. Would you like to be president?
[on] It is true that the Colombians have been very generous in recognizing our commitment as a law enforcement agency and my commitment as director of the institution I directed. However I do not want to confuse the appreciation and affection I have towards the citizens of my country with electoral aspirations that I’ve never had. 

[PH] Many intellectuals and ex-presidents across Latin America believe that the debate over the war on drugs should include talks of decriminalization or even legalization. What is your view on this?
[on] I share the fundamental idea that we should initiate talks so that the world responds with more intelligence and a realistic approach towards global drug issues. I do believe it’s a mistake to arrive at conclusions such as the legalization of consumption before we even begin the debates. I believe the debate loses its credibility if we make conclusions too soon that could severely impact the well-being of humanity. •

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