Colombia officials condemned for release of alleged drug dealer. Country's press joins US in outrage over government negligence
| Bogot'a, Colombia
Accusations of negligence, complicity, and corruption are being made by the Colombian press against government officials involved in the release from prison of alleged top cocaine trafficker Jorge Luis Ochoa. Mr. Ochoa was freed by a judge who signed a habeous corpus order on Wednesday night. Civil Aviation Authority sources say Ochoa went straight from the prison to a small airport south of Bogot'a where he boarded a private plane and flew towards Central America.
He had been serving a 20-month jail sentence for smuggling Spanish fighting bulls into the country, and was wanted in the United States on charges of massive cocaine smuggling and conspiracy to murder.
Angry comments from the US State Department leave no doubt that the Reagan administration blames the Colombian government for breaking its word on keeping a ``dangerous criminal'' behind bars. ``The US government had, in fact, been assured by the government of Colombia at the highest levels that Ochoa would not be set free,'' said a statement released by the US Embassy here in Bogota.
The Colombian ambassador to Washington, Victor Mosquera, in turn says this is offensive to Colombia, as President Virgilio Barco Vargas had never promised to keep Ochoa in detention.
One influential Conservative Party leader writes in a Sunday newspaper editorial that the justice minister must accept the blame for the disaster and resign immediately.
The governor of the maximum security Picota prison and his assistant have been summarily fired for disobeying an order not to free their prisoner. However, they have in turn accused the national prison director of delaying his arrival to take charge of the problem until long after Ochoa had left.
There are savagely critical comments in the daily El Espectador, whose editor, Guillermo Cano was assassinated by the drug mob just over one year ago. His son, the current editor, Fernando Cano, wrote in Saturday's paper: ``Never before has one reached the certainty that those directing the course of the nation are the magical dealers in drugs....'' His main editorial and the front page were headed: ``How shameful!'' He noted that the Ochoa release has converted Colombia into a laughing-stock. It has lost all credibility and is seen as a nation with a judiciary not only unable to put dangerous criminals on trial but also unable to keep them in custody.
In his year-end broadcast President Barco said the incident pointed up some of the weaknesses of the legal system, but that it should not damage faith in the rule of law. ``It is true that one of them has regained his freedom, but others have not and are being tried.''
Nonetheless, observers here note that not one significant trafficker is detained in Colombia. Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, a top man in the Cali group of cocaine smugglers and wanted for multiple drug importing charges in the US, was found not guilty on all counts by a court in the city of Cali. This was despite extensive evidence presented by a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent who had spent four years on his case.
A senior Colombian investigator told this reporter that bribery was involved, and that the government did so little to help the prosecution it looked like complicity. The foreign ministry, he said, held up for eight months delivery of the official request to the US for information needed in the trial. Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, a suspected Honduran drug-trafficking chief wanted in the US on charges including involvement in the murder of the DEA agent, also escaped from a Bogota prison and left the country.
The Ochoa family, Pablo Escobar, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, and the other king-pins of the drug mob known as the ``Medellin Cartel'' have vast personal fortunes from the cocaine trade. Police sources say they have spent up to a half million dollars on assassination contracts and millions more on the purchase of congressional seats or bribes. They have, Fernando Cano alleges, bought themselves the power to control the nation's destiny, as a means of keeping their freedom to carry on cocaine trafficking.
One leading Bogota television journalist observed this week in an off-camera conversation ``We are an occupied country. We have been occupied by an alien force, the traffickers.''
The only cocaine king to be brought to justice by Colombia is Carlos Lehder, flown out to Florida the same day he was caught, because the extradition order had already been completed by the previous government. Lehder had also lost his leadership in the Cartel, with his drug consumption and flamboyant behavior turning him into a liability the others were apparently happy to sacrifice.
One measure of how little progress has been made in Colombia's ``war on drugs,'' despite the police statistics on substantial amounts of cocaine and precursor chemicals captured, is the present availability of cocaine at greater purity and the lowest cost in memory.
The price has now dropped to around $1,500 per kilogram from the $12,000-14,000 of the late 1970s, as a result of the overwhelming increase in production, now expanding into Brazil and out of control in Bolivia.
As the price level of cocaine has fallen, the volume of shipments has grown. Shipments as large as four tons have reportedly been flown recently on a single aircraft.
To keep profit levels high, Colombian traffickers are turning more and more to taking over the distribution side of the business in North America and Europe, and reportedly are starting to compete directly with the old mafia on its home ground in Italy. They are also experimenting with opium poppy-growing and heroin refining in the central Colombian mountains.
The Colombian government now has virtually no weapon with which to fight them. The Supreme Court has invalidated the extradition treaty with the US, and drug traffickers would seem to have little to fear from Colombian courts and jails.