Colombian Justice System Falters

Drug traffickers turn themselves in, but key case suggests judges still face intimidation

COLOMBIA's ambitious effort to put drug traffickers on trial at home rather than extradite them has run into a persistent problem: how to protect judges against some of the globe's richest, most violent criminals? Colombian officials in recent weeks have been unable to hide their elation over the apparent success of a new judicial program intended to curb drug trafficking. Seven drug suspects, including two Medell'in cartel leaders, turned themselves in under an official offer of leniency, including guarantees of no extradition and reduced prison sentences.

The surrenders vindicated President C'esar Gaviria Trujillo's policy of coaxing traffickers into jail through legal concessions, the officials said. Mr. Gaviria himself assured skeptics that surrendering traffickers would serve significant jail time in Colombia.

Then came the system's first failure. One trafficking suspect that surrendered under the plan was tried, sentenced - and released.

A judge in the western city of Manizales last week sentenced the suspect, Gonzalo Mej'ia San'in, to 36 months in jail. The judge then suspended the sentence and quickly resigned. Mr. Mej'ia San'in, wanted in the United States on cocaine trafficking charges, walked free on parole.

The tale is an old one in Colombia, where traffickers have proven their ability to kill any judge they can neither bribe nor threaten into a favorable verdict.

Colombian officials were obviously embarrassed by the verdict, refusing to confirm it for several days. Attorney General Carlos Arrieta said the judge's decision in the Mej'ia San'in case was a ``rotten precedent'' for the leniency program and pledged to investigate the judge for misconduct.

Mr. Arrieta said the suspect may find himself jailed again if an appeals court overturns the judge's decision as expected. But foreign officials say they worry more light sentences for drug traffickers will follow, despite Colombia's vague assurances that the judicial system has been strengthened.

``The government's efforts to prove that it hasn't sold out to the traffickers hinges on the functioning of the justice system,'' says a Western diplomat. ``I'm pessimistic because judges are obviously still exposed to bribery and intimidation.''

Of particular concern is the pending trial of Jorge Luis Ochoa, the Medell'in cartel's No. 2 man, who turned himself in to court officials on Jan. 15.

Mr. Ochoa, wanted in the US on cocaine distribution and murder charges, had already been incarcerated twice in Colombia. On both occasions he was released by judges who were subsequently dismissed on misconduct charges.

``Ochoa has already bribed himself out of prison twice,'' says a Colombian attorney specializing in international criminal law. ``What makes the government think he won't do it again?''

The lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity, adds that extradition should be applied in Ochoa's case. ``If you want that guy to spend significant time in jail, the only thing to do is to stick him on a plane headed north.''

Ochoa's younger brother Fabio was the first cartel leader to take advantage of the government's offer when he surrendered in December. Both suspects went before judge and confessed a crime. The government has not said what those crimes are, but many people doubt the offenses will carry weighty sentences.

``I cannot see any way under Colombian law that any of these suspects will receive more than eight years,'' says the Western official. ``The question is whether Colombia can justify those results to officials in the United States, where people are serving life sentences for similar crimes.''

Even more dangerous than the Ochoa brothers is Pablo Escobar, the cartel leader alleged to have masterminded its terrorist campaign. Mr. Escobar is said to be holding six hostages, including the daughter of a former president and a member of the family that owns the country's leading newspaper.

The cartel boss recently said he, too, would consider surrendering if the government granted him more concessions, including forming a state council to negotiate with traffickers. The cartel leader has apparently not abandoned his quest to be treated as a political criminal similar to the country's leftist guerrillas, who receive amnesty when they disarm.

Justice Minister Jaime Giraldo Angel pledged last week to make no more reconciliation gestures to traffickers and exhorted them to submit themselves to the revamped judicial system.

Mr. Giraldo is architect of a new jurisdictional system of 82 judges charged with putting the Ochoas and other drug and terrorist suspects on trial. The judges' identities are to be kept secret under the plan.

But several legal analysts and judges say the plan will not work for the most basic of reasons.

``The suspects who have the influence and the money to uncover the judges' identities are the drug traffickers ... who have killed scores of judicial officials in the past,'' says Maria Consuelo del Rio, a Bogot'a human rights lawyer who has made an extensive study of the judicial reform.

Adds Gregorio Oveido, a Bogot'a criminal court judge, ``The government has put the new system in place as part of negotiations with drug traffickers, not to protect judges.''

Though he is not one of the 82 special judges, Mr. Oveido says he knows many of them who are scared. ``They know that if they sentence one of the [cocaine bosses] to 20 years, they run the risk of being killed,'' he says.

Government officials, particularly those in the president's inner circle, are highly sensitive to such criticism. Colombian officials rebuffed requests for an interview on the new judicial system.

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