Colombia's muted response to US conviction of drug king

Few Colombians are willing to talk openly about the conviction last week of Carlos Lehder Rivas by a United States jury for massive drug trafficking. Mr. Lehder - a major figure in the cocaine cartel headquartered in Colombia's second largest city, Medell'in - had been extradited to the US following his capture on Feb. 4. Lehder introduced high-tech equipment and high-powered terror tactics into the Latin American drug trade.

Some Colombians feel the decision is a boost to the country's attempts to impose law on an increasingly drug-threatened and violent society, and will discourage people from getting into drug trafficking.

``A majority of Colombians oppose extradition, but it's the only thing traffickers fear, so we ought to be able to use it,'' a prominent television journalist says.

Yet the conviction is not seen as likely to have a major effect on the other drug barons or on the nation's efforts to capture them.

Early this month the Colombian Supreme Court buried the last hopes of using existing laws to send more drug traffickers to the US for trial.

In 1987, the Colombian Supreme Court declared the legislation to carry out the country's extradition treaty with the US as unconstitutional. Although the treaty itself remains valid, it cannot be used. When the attorney general attempted to use earlier international agreements for extradition, the Court ruled that the US treaty had canceled those agreements, leaving Colombia without any law permitting extradition.

Colombia's justice minister has had to cancel arrest orders for the five most-wanted drug traffickers.

The Army has tried to step into this legal breach, harassing cocaine makers with almost daily attacks on coca farms and laboratories.

Hundreds of weapons, including US Army materiel, aircraft, communications equipment, and lower-echelon employees have been seized in the past 10 weeks. Hideouts have been captured, airstrips destroyed, and evidence collected that should be more than adequate to convict, provided the top men are caught and judges dare to try them.

Local television has shown dramatic shots of troops destroying drug factories, barrels of chemicals exploding in huge columns of flame. But the illicit industry so far seems to have been hurt only by its own expansion. Steady over-production has forced down profit levels, according to crime sources.

Colombia's other cartel leaders are less threatened now that the extradition treaty is no longer in effect.

A senior narcotics specialist of the attorney general's department says the big drug traffickers are unlikely to avenge the conviction, as Lehder had already lost his leadership in the cartel and become embarrassing to fellow criminals with his heavy drug use and notorious life style. ``The others will not care what happens to him. But the example is important; it will help dissuade people from trafficking.''

Nonetheless, there is a dispiriting atmosphere of public resignation to the cocaine wars as an unalterable fact of Latin American life. The Lehder conviction may help restore a little faith in the power of the law, but his post in the trafficking structure has long been filled, and the industry has only gone on growing.

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