Colombia Gives US Reach In Drug War, but Limits It

Last week's extradition move gives US access to drug traffickers - but may allow 'effective amnesty' for the worst offenders.

'Bittersweet" is how Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Emma Mejia characterized his country's decision to remove a constitutional ban on extradition.

Colombia will soon be a much less comfortable place from which to sell narcotics. But powerful drug traffickers in Colombia were able to exert their influence on the government to make sure that extradition will never apply to them.

The vote last week brought a close to 15 months of debate and constant pressure from the Clinton administration. More important, it ends six years in which drug criminals knew they couldn't be judged for their crimes outside the safety of the Colombian justice system, where they wield great influence. But there's a catch: The amendment will never affect the leaders of the Cali drug cartel, already in prison.

"I would call it a modest step forward," says US State Department spokesman Jim Foley, calling it regrettable that "the bill allows the Cali cartel kingpins to avoid extradition."

Mr. Foley says that the weakness of the amendment will be a factor in the Clinton administration's decision about "certifying" Colombia as an ally in Washington's war on drugs. But some experts say too strong a retaliation could be counterproductive.

"If the US sanctions Colombia too much, there may be a nationalistic reaction that would spoil the present type of cooperation, which in certain areas is very successful," says Colombian political scientist Rodrigo Losada.

US officials say that the Cali cartel bosses bought the allegiance of many Colombian congressmen, as many as 70 percent of the legislators. The US also says that the criminals have a piece of President Ernesto Samper.

President Samper has weathered the scandal surrounding the $6 million he said he was unaware that the Cali cartel gave to his campaign. Congress cleared the president of wrongdoing last year, but many still say he owes favors to the narcos.

"President Samper made some agreements in exchange for the money which entered his campaign - he's still bound to them," alleges Claudia Blum, a senator from Cali. She claims cutting out the retroactivity on the Cali drug lords was Samper's payment in full to the drug cartel's support of his campaign. Samper's officials maintain they did their best to push through a strong amendment on extradition.

"We made contact with every individual representative. The government used all its power of persuasion," says Interior Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo.

Retroactivity is controversial for other reasons. Legal experts note that to change the penalty years after a crime was committed flies in the face of jurisprudence in almost every country. Proponents say that retroactivity is essential to prevent an effective amnesty for drug dealers who are wanted by Washington.

A painful example: Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, the brothers who headed the Cali cartel, will probably go free after serving only five or six years in a comfortable Colombian jail. Worse yet, US officials say that the Cali kingpins are still running their business from inside the prison.

Extradition has a long history here. Colombia ratified a new constitution in 1991 that included an article banning extradition. The article was widely known to be a concession to drug lord Pablo Escobar, who had declared that he preferred "a tomb in Colombia to a jail in the United States." As part of his campaign, Mr. Escobar, who was killed in 1993, assassinated presidential candidates, judges, and prosecutors.

While US officials and extradition advocates here may be dissatisfied, the passage of any form of extradition is a historic step for Colombia. But extradition still lacks several regulatory steps. And with Colombian elections coming in the spring of 1998, it's unlikely that anything will happen until this time next year.

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