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Colombia to reassess policy of extraditing drug traffickers to US

Many think extradition to the US is a trafficker's worst nightmare, but many negotiate with US law enforcement for more lenient sentences resulting in dramatically reduced jail time, says a blogger.

By Geoffrey RamseyGuest blogger / April 9, 2012

Colombian police escort suspected drug traffickers during their presentation to the press in Bogota February 27. 35 people were arrested in operation "Legado" between the authorities of Colombia and United States against drug trafficking.

John Vizcaino/REUTERS

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• A version of this post ran on the author's site, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

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Although it has relied heavily on extraditions in the past as a way to break up powerful criminal networks, the perception that criminals face lighter sentences in the United States has caused Colombia to reassess this strategy.

Colombia's Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra has been raising eyebrows recently by insinuating that the country may soon alter its reliance on extraditing criminals to the US to stand trial. In a March 29 interview with W Radio (in Spanish), Mr. Esguerra remarked that some who are sent to answer to justice in the US are given sentences that are "too short,” adding that Colombians should face domestic charges first before being sent abroad.

Esguerra clarified this statement in a subsequent interview in El Tiempo (in Spanish), saying that extraditions are not a sign that Colombia is incapable of enforcing the rule of law. Instead, he insisted that the process of approving an extradition depends on the gravity of charges in the foreign country. Esguerra also claimed that the country is at a “turning point” in its anti-drug strategy, and said that President Juan Manuel Santos will likely address the issue at the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.

Extradition has a long and tumultuous history in Colombia. Drug kingpin Pablo Escobar waged a war over the measure, leaving hundreds of civilians, police and judges dead before Colombian lawmakers and leaders banned extradition in the 1991 constitution.

The measure was reinstituted in 1995, and it's generally believed that the prospect of extradition to the US has been the worst nightmare of Colombian drug traffickers. But this is only partly true. For convicted traffickers, a jail cell in the US has often meant losing touch with their families, as well as completely renouncing their positions within their organizations. In contrast, Colombia’s weak and corrupt justice system has provided prisoners with the ability to direct criminal activities from prison.

However, after extradition came into play again in the mid-1990s, traffickers started negotiating with US law enforcement, providing information in return for more lenient sentences. The results were sometimes dramatic reductions in time served for some of the most notorious underworld figures.

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