In Bid to Curtail Violence Bolivia Moves to Suspend Extradition of Drug Lords

Bolivian officials hope to learn from Colombia's difficulties by offering amnesty plan before violence breaks out

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE Bolivian government has announced a peacekeeping plan designed to tempt the country's top cocaine traffickers to give themselves up in return for guarantees that they will not be extradited to the United States.According to the plan, which is due to become law this week, traffickers have a fixed period of 120 days to surrender voluntarily. During that time, the government has promised not to process any extradition request from any country. The formula also allows for reduced prison sentences if traffickers confess their crimes and "make an efficient contribution" to the capture of other traffickers. The traffickers will be sentenced under Bolivian law, which stipulates a minimum five-year jail term for drug offenses. Government officials admit they have studied a similar deal the Colombian government recently offered to traffickers such as Pablo Escobar. But they insist there are differences between Colombia and Bolivia, the world's first- and second-largest producers of cocaine respectively. "In Colombia, the strategy of bringing the traffickers to justice started with death and violence, and then proceeded to legally-based solutions," said Interior Minister Carlos Saavedra. "In Bolivia, we are starting with a legal solution to avoid a bloodbath." Bolivia has escaped much of the drug-related violence pervasive in Colombia. "We can count on the fingers of one hand the cases of [drug] violence in Bolivia," Mr. Saavedra added. Government officials explain that the main goal of the plan is to preempt the formation of paramilitary squads protecting the traffickers by offering them the chance to turn themselves in now. Saavedra also announced that a new maximum-security prison, Chonchocoro, on the outskirts of the capital, La Paz, was almost ready to receive the narcos, as they are known locally. In the last 10 days, one major narco suspect, Erwin Guzman, has turned himself in to Bolivian authorities, and two others have promised to do so, provided that they are tried in a Bolivian, rather than a US court. Two of the three, including Mr. Guzman, face charges in the US. Bolivia currently has a wanted-list of 10 top narcos in the country. Saavedra said he was confident the plan "was going to get a good reception from the traffickers." The Bolivian Roman Catholic church, the police, and the Army have welcomed the plan. But some government officials and opposition members of Bolivia's Congress have said that the offer ought to continue indefinitely. US Embassy officials have declined to comment on the government offer, saying they need more time to study it in detail. But local analysts say Washington is not likely to welcome the move. US authorities have an unofficial list of about 20 major Bolivian traffickers wanted on drug charges in the US. No Bolivian has ever been formally extradited to the US on drug trafficking charges. Last month for the first time, Washington asked Bolivia to extradite three suspected traffickers. The three are close relatives of Jorge Roca Suarez, who was arrested in Los Angeles last December and is regarded by drug officials as Bolivia's No. 1 narco. Their cases will not be covered by the new government offer. It is not clear why Bolivian traffickers are choosing this moment to give themselves up. The official explanation is that their change of heart is a product of the successful war launched against the country's cocaine production and the recent government decision to accept US training for the Army to take part in the fight against drugs. But observers say that many of the traffickers have close links with the Medellin and Cali cocaine cartels in Colombia, and may have been influenced by their Colombian colleagues. They also know that the US government has been putting strong pressure on the Bolivian government to sign a new extradition treaty. The current treaty dates back to Butch Cassidy's heyday at the turn of the century, and extradition is not mandatory. It is also not clear how much impact a mass narco surrender will have on cocaine production, worth at least $300 million a year. "We expect a drastic reduction in cocaine trafficking," Saavedra said. "But we are not naive enough to expect it to disappear."

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