The Miami Herald
Nov. 08, 2002

Drug baron goes free early

Colombian court cites good behavior in prison


  BOGOTA - A onetime leader of the notorious Cali drug cartel, Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, walked out of prison Thursday night, hours after a court ordered his early release further fueling a national debate over the role of politics in the courts and the powers of presidency.

  He left the prison in Tunja at 10 p.m, surrounded by dozens of police and soldiers to prevent violence.

  The government of President Alvaro Uribe, who came into office vowing to crack down on drug trafficking, had tried to block the release by every means possible. In the process, some critics say, he exceeded his authority and undermined the independence of the judiciary.

  The controversy began last Friday, when a local judge stunned the nation by ordering the release of both Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, drug baron brothers accused of being the brains behind 80 percent of the cocaine shipments to the United States. In its heyday, their cartel was believed to have made some $8 billion a year in profits.

  The men were fugitives until 1995. They were nabbed in a series of spectacular raids which authorities said put an end to the cartel and later tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison. On Friday, a judge ordered their release after they had served about half their sentence, citing good behavior and participation in a work-study


  The president, elected in May with a mandate to end rampant lawlessness, publicly vowed to stop the release. Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela was suddenly convicted of a bribery charge for which he had earlier been acquitted, and sentenced to another four years in prison.

  And while authorities scrambled to find pending cases to keep his brother Gilberto behind bars, a second judge upheld the decision to release him.

  Justice Minister Fernando Londoño publicly announced he suspected bribery, and said if the Colombian courts cannot be trusted, then the men should be extradited to the United States.

  ''The fact that this man could be released is a high-risk situation for Colombian society,'' Londoño said. ``This is a moment of mourning and pain for the country's image and for the administration of justice in Colombia.''

  The president said he'd rather be called arbitrary ``than damage the national honor by simply being a softie.''

  Judicial decisions ''cannot automatically be accepted by the government when there are deep legal doubts,'' Uribe said, adding: ``The government has ordered that the prisoners not be released as long as such doubts exist.''

  The first judge, Pedro Suárez, was placed under investigation,and the prison warden who provided good behavior certificates suspended.

  ''The president has made a commitment against drug trafficking, but in keeping that commitment, he's going further than he can go,'' said political analyst Fernando
  Cepeda, a former ambassador to the Organization of American States. ``Legally, he's not right.''

  Cepeda said the case illustrates the weaknesses of the Colombian judicial system. But he and other experts agreed that if Colombian law allows even high profile
  lawbreakers to be released when they meet existing conditions, then the Rodríguez brothers should be freed.

  The Supreme Court here issued a statement this week accusing Uribe of not respecting the separation of powers.

  The case has caused a flurry of activity both here and among U.S. officials, who would like the men extradited. Although they have been indicted in the United States, the cases would have to be for crimes committed after 1997, the year the constitution here permitted extraditions.


  An indictment in U.S. District Court in New York is currently pending for fugitive William Rodríguez, Miguel's son, who is suspected of taking over the Cali drug trade. ''The judge's decision to release Orejuela was unfortunate,'' a U.S. State Department spokesman said. ``The illegal activities of the Orejuela brothers are of concern to us and to the Colombian government, which has made every effort to prevent their release.''

  Despite criticism in the legal and academic communities, Uribe enjoys wide support from Colombians, who elected him with a get-tough mandate. Within days of taking office, Uribe declared the nation in a state of unrest, allowing law enforcement special liberties in conducting searches and making arrests. Even human rights groups have had their offices searched by investigators who lacked a judicial warrant.


  ''Uribe goes around saying, `I am not corrupt and will not permit these things that are really bad!''' said political analyst Pablo Franky. ``But the problem is that law and ethics don't fit in with that. You have to follow the law, or you become a dictator.''

  But Franky admits: Colombians are thrilled.

  ''I give it six months,'' he said. ``Then, when Uribe still doesn't have answers to solve all the problems, people will start getting tired.''