For the first time, a Miami grand jury indicted as a racketeering organization the leaders of the largest drug smuggling cartel in the hemisphere. It was the strongest legal shot yet at the infamous ``Medellin cartel,'' named after the Colombian city where it began.
The unsealing of the indictments this week was as much a political as a legal maneuver, however. None of the indicted leaders is in custody, and only occasional sightings indicate their whereabouts.
But United States officials hope that the new indictments, which involved three years of Drug Enforcement Administration intelligence work to chart out how the cartel operates, will help pressure Latin American and European countries to seize and hold these people.
``We would hope that the unsealing of the indictments and the resulting publicity would make these countries less likely to accept these people,'' says Ana Barnett, executive assistant US attorney in Miami.
The Medellin cartel has proven a frustrating foe. The principals have been indicted before on individual counts. Enforcement officials have succeeded, at least, in driving the leaders underground and making them international fugitives. There is evidence, as well, that law enforcement has chipped away at the organization.
But the Medellin cartel leaders have always slipped away, and cocaine traffic has not slowed down. The new indictments won't have any impact, says John Cusack, chief of staff of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, ``unless these people can be arrested and brought to trial in Miami.''
A classic case of the difficulties of arresting and trying these leaders is that of Jorge Ochoa-Vasquez, one of three brothers at the top of the cartel organization chart. Mr. Ochoa was arrested in Spain and jailed. The US filed for extradition on drug trafficking charges. Then Colombia filed too on charges of illegally importing fighting bulls. Ochoa was extradited to Colombia on the relatively minor charge and released.
``It's not a question of cooperation of Colombian authorities,'' notes Mr. Cusack. Rather, the government does not have the ability to control drug traffickers who have backed up their threats to officials by killing 31 judges since 1979, he explains.
``People can plead guilty and a judge won't sentence them because its his death warrant,'' says Cusack.
The US attorney in Miami expects the new indictments to eventually help apprehend, as well as prosecute, the Medellin cartel ringleaders - ``when a man goes into a Panama bank to launder some money, or an airport, and somebody says, `hey, I've heard of this guy somewhere before,''' says Ms. Barnett.
To arrest and convict the cartel leaders would set back the cocaine trade significantly. ``People like that are not easily replaced,'' says Cusack.
The five key leaders of the loosely knit cartel are the Ochoa brothers, Pablo Escobar-Gaviria, and Carlos Lehder. All are Colombian.
The indictment describes how the cartel used violence and murder to protect an operation that ran large-scale cocaine processing laboratories in the Colombian jungle, brought raw coca paste from Bolivia and Peru, ran ``brokerage houses'' for arranging cocaine transport into the US, and managed the storage and distribution of cocaine in the US. Federal officials believe the cartel smuggled 58 tons of cocaine into the US since 1979.
The indictment also names a Mexican, Gonzalo Rodriguez-Gacha, as the organizer of smuggling into the West Coast; a Colombian, Rafael Cardona-Salazar, as the supervisor of US operations; a former aide to Nicaraguan Interior Minister Tomas Borge, Federico Vaughan, for setting up cocaine labs and distribution points in Nicaragua; and ``Jota,'' the otherwise unnamed accountant and financial adviser to the cartel.