US Squeeze on Colombia Yields Law on Drug Assets

Government can seize billions earned by convicted drug lords

After dramatic debate, Colombia's Congress has approved a vital asset-forfeiture law, one of three laws that aim to make the country a less comfortable place for drug traffickers.

The law, passed late Dec. 12, allows the seizure of millions in assets purchased with drug money and meets one of the conditions demanded by the United States if Colombia seeks to be considered a partner in the war on drugs.

"Colombia cannot become a cave full of criminals," says Sen. Claudia Blum, cosponsor of the bill. Ms. Blum briefly fled to the US this fall after drug traffickers left a van full of dynamite outside her husband's factory.

The asset-forfeiture law will be applied retroactively, allowing Colombia to collect billions in assets held by the Cali cartel leaders, who are in jail awaiting sentencing. With the confiscated funds, Bogot plans to establish a fund to support social programs and redistribute the vast land holdings of drug lords.

The Colombian Congress has debated three major laws this fall involving higher penalties for drug-trafficking, seizure of illicit assets, and changing the Colombian Constitution to legalize international extradition.

Tougher laws are especially essential to sway the US. The Colombian government is racing to change its international image before March, when the US decides whether it is cooperating sufficiently in the war on drugs. Colombia was decertified by the US last winter. A second decertification could bring damaging economic sanctions.

Current Colombian law does little to deter drug traffickers. Trafficking carries a maximum penalty of 24 years. But sentencing is traditionally lenient and is loaded with possibilities for reduction.

For example, Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, known within the Cali cartel as "Lollypop," was sentenced last week to the maximum penalty of 24 years. He was then awarded an eight-year reduction for pleading guilty and three more years for cooperating with prosecutors. With time off for good behavior and study, "Lollypop" may serve as few as eight years for trafficking tons of cocaine to the US.

"With all the reductions, we almost owe the time to the criminals," a public prosecutor in Cali says.

After serving short sentences, drug lords customarily return to the mansions and sports cars funded by their crimes. Nor do criminals fear the life sentences that await them in the US: Colombia's Constitution prohibits extradition.

Legislating against the drug traffickers remains an uphill fight. Some members of Congress estimate that 80 percent of the House and Senate receive bribes from narcotraffickers. Last week, police analyzed taped conversations of Cali cartel bosses speaking to their lawyers from prison. They believe the bosses were passing instructions to corrupt congressmen on how to vote. On Friday, police issued a warrant for an arrest for one Cali lawyer.

Opposition congressmen used a myriad of delay tactics this fall. They even attached conditions to the penalty-increase bill that would protect convicted congressmen from prison and allow them to serve time under comfortable house arrest.

Where bribes fail, the drug cartels use threats and violence. Blum's stand against them has earned her repeated threats. After briefly taking shelter in the US, Blum returned to Colombia in November to vote on the antidrug bills. She plans to leave Colombia again when Congress recesses Dec. 19.

She is no stranger to violence. Her father was killed by guerrillas in 1983. "When my father was killed, I said, 'I have to fight and my country has to change,' " Blum says.

Greater hurdles await. The bill to increase penalties for drug trafficking and create a special penalty for the leaders of criminal organizations faces formidable opposition. And the amendment to allow extradition was defeated before it came up for vote Dec. 16. Opposition congressmen seriously altered the proposed amendment, making it nonretroactive, causing former proponents of the bill to abandon the project. Another condition would have prohibited extradition if the penalty abroad was higher than in Colombia - certainly the case in the US.

An extradition policy so riddled with exceptions would [have been] an "international embarrassment," public prosecutor Alfonso Valdivieso recently told Congress.

"I prefer nothing to this," Blum says.

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