For US, a stronger hand in extraditing drug lords

Mexico and Colombia are more willing to turn over indicted suspects, adding a tool to US antidrug arsenal.

Not long ago, catching crooks indicted for bringing kilos of cocaine and tons of marijuana bundles into the United States was a long shot - especially if their home countries were uncooperative.

But lately, officials in Colombia and Mexico are becoming more willing - even eager - to hand over suspected drug lords. In the past six months, several high-level drug traffickers have been extradited to the US to stand trial on smuggling charges.

The uptick in extraditions is expected to cause temporary disruption of cartels abroad but, in the end, isn't likely to do much to stem the flow of illicit drugs into the US. History shows that underlings usually step into the place of jailed leaders and reorganize the operation, experts say.

But extraditions do send a symbolic message - and not just to traffickers. They are a way for Latin American governments to demonstrate that they can see the drug problem from the US point of view, no longer insisting that demand is the sole problem (as Colombia had) or that handing over drug operatives is akin to surrendering state sovereignty (as Mexico had).

"Extradition is the culmination of the governments of Mexico and Colombia finally seeing the drug problem through North American eyes," says William Walker, a professor of history and international relations at Florida International University in Miami. "It's a symbol of their willingness to limit sovereignty in pursuit of more important goals."

Mexico's Supreme Court, for instance, has recently changed its law banning extraditions of drug traffickers. Since President Vicente Fox took office in December, after 71 years of one-party rule, several key players have been sent to the US.

The most important so far is Arturo "Kitty" Paez, the right-hand man of the Arellano Felix brothers in Tijuana. He became the highest-level Mexican drug trafficker ever extradited to the United States when he was turned over in May.

"The Arellano Felix cartel is one of the longest-standing drug cartels in Mexico, and by all accounts the most violent and ruthless," says Gonzalo Curiel, chief of narcotics enforcement for the US Attorney's Office in San Diego.

While Mr. Curiel won't discuss current intelligence reports from Tijuana, he says the extradition has "taken a toll" on the organization.

And in one of the biggest US coups in years, Colombian drug lord Fabio Ochoa was recently handed over to officials in Miami. He'd been under indictment for two years, accused of pumping $5 billion worth of cocaine onto America's streets.

"He is certainly the most high-profile member of the Medellin Cartel since Pablo Escobar," says Joe Kilmer of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami. "Ochoa and his family are to cocaine what the Fords are to the automobile industry."

Mr. Kilmer, who watched as Mr. Ochoa was brought from the airport to a federal holding facility in south Florida, says the despair on Ochoa's face was evident. "He looked like a beaten man, like he thought this day would never come," says Kilmer.

Two weeks ago, Ochoa pleaded not guilty to the nine felony charges against him, and he is awaiting trial.

While extraditions help to target individual traffickers, build better relations between countries, and boost morale in the war on drugs, they don't necessarily mean the flow of drugs into the US will be

reduced, experts warn.

"Extradition will not be the magic bullet, even if they start massive extraditions," says Peter Andreas, a professor of international studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "It makes individual traffickers quite nervous, but the illicit drug industry is not severely shaken."

It does, however, give law enforcement one more tool in its arsenal.

"No one is naive enough to believe that catching the Arellano Felix brothers would stop the flow of drugs tomorrow. But at the same time, we have to do something to disrupt these organizations," says Curiel.

But a focus on individuals can have some negative effects. For instance, as Colombia and the US have attacked the Cali and Medellin cartels, smaller organizations have sprung up, making the players harder to pinpoint and the activity harder to monitor. Also, Peru's cocaine production has risen in recent years, as the US spends millions in Colombia. The Caribbean, too, is again seeing more drug traffic after drug-interdiction resources were diverted to the Mexico border.

"The only constant in the war on drugs is that as long as there is demand and it is profitable, there are going to be people ... willing to take the place of those extradited," says Bruce Zagaris, an international criminal lawyer with a specialty in extradition.

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