Bush to visit Colombia today to discuss war on drugs
BY STEVEN DUDLEY
BOGOTA - When President Bush visits Colombia today for a brief stay, there are few bigger trophies he could carry back home than the extradition order for Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela.
Once the head of the mighty Cali Cartel that controlled up to 80 percent of the world's cocaine market, Rodríguez Orejuela, 65, and brother Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, 62, are awaiting extradition to the United States to face drug trafficking charges.
The extraditions would be considered a huge victory for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. After being peppered with allegations of connections to traffickers during his presidential campaign, Uribe has made his mark with the Bush administration by cracking down on them.
Since taking office in August 2002, Uribe has sent 192 suspected traffickers to face U.S. trials, compared with 64 during all four years of his predecessor's term.
Now Uribe hopes to capitalize on this show of goodwill to win another round of massive aid from Washington. Since 2000, Colombia has received over $3 billion in U.S. funds, more than any nation outside the Middle East and Afghanistan. Analysts say that putting the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers in the U.S. justice system may solidify the U.S. Congress' support for a second round of aid.
Bush and Uribe are expected to discuss the new aid package during Bush's three-hour stopover in the city of Cartagena on his way home from a summit of Pacific rim nations in Chile. Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela's extradition is expected soon, but Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela may still file an appeal with Colombia's Supreme Court.
Yet, while extradition can improve bilateral relations, it is not always clear whether it is effective in deterring drug trafficking. Many in Colombia, for instance, see the Rodríguez Orejuelas' extradition as a token gesture, mostly because authorities here dismantled the brothers' empire long ago.
''I think this is largely symbolic,'' former Attorney General Alfonso Gómez Méndez said of the extradition of the Rodríguez Orejuelas. ``[And] I have to ask myself: Up to what point has extradition been efficient in combating drug trafficking, especially when drug trafficking continues to get worse?''
The Cali Cartel emerged triumphant after the Medellín Cartel's demise in the early 1990s. After the arrest of the most prominent Cali Cartel members in the mid-1990s, including Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, the powerful Norte de Valle Cartel appeared. And even as the Norte de Valle Cartel now struggles with internal squabbles, authorities here say there are new ''baby'' cartels taking their place.
''It does provide a morale boost for the troops since previously untouchable drug cartel leaders are brought to justice,'' said Ruben Oliva, a Miami defense attorney, in an e-mail exchange. ``[But] it's the same impact as when Al Capone was finally incarcerated. Everybody felt good, but prohibition continued to be ineffectual. Al Capone was easily replaced.''
Still, some U.S. prosecutors say extradition remains their key weapon in the war on drugs. It helps them build cases, tears apart alliances and generally disrupts the trade. Even when it is symbolic, U.S. authorities applaud its impact.
''The strong alliance of the United States and Colombian law enforcement sends a chilling message to major drug trafficking organizations in Colombia and throughout the world,'' said Thomas Raffanello, who was in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami when the indictment of the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers was announced.
Extradition's impact on Colombia, however, has often been chaotic.
Medellín Cartel leader Pablo Escobar killed dozens of policemen, judges and innocent civilians during his campaign against extradition. And many attribute the current infighting in the Norte de Valle Cartel, which has left more than 1,000 dead, to a dispute over whether to accept extradition.
Some would argue that these disturbances prove how effective extradition is.
''From the point of view of law enforcement, it is absolutely an effective tool,'' Oliva said. ``Accused criminals no longer have a safe harbor to which they can retreat and avoid prosecution.''
Yet, doubts remain, especially since the use of extradition does not seem uniform. Critics complain that Uribe has granted temporary immunity to right-wing paramilitary leaders wanted in the United States for drug trafficking while the government negotiates a peace settlement with the armed groups.