Surge in Extradition of Colombia Drug Suspects to U.S.
By JUAN FORERO
BOGOTÁ, Colombia, Dec. 5 - At the beginning of November, Colombia's government crowed about extraditing, all on one day, 13 drug trafficking suspects to the United States. Before the month was out, President Álvaro Uribe's government had handed over another group of 15 Colombians, all facing cocaine trafficking and money laundering charges, to American anti-drug agents.
Then late on Friday, the biggest prize of all - Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, 65, said to be the most powerful cocaine magnate ever to be extradited - was placed aboard a Drug Enforcement Administration flight to Miami. Officials from Attorney General John Ashcroft, to federal prosecutors in New York to authorities from the Department of Homeland Security hailed the extradition.
But it was no surprise.
Mr. Uribe's government has extradited more than 170 drug trafficking suspects to the United States, more than the combined total of other administrations since 1984, when the cocaine billionaire Carlos Lehder was shuttled to Florida, until Mr. Uribe's term began 28 months ago.
The Colombian government has been using these extraditions as political leverage both in its disarmament negotiations with right-wing paramilitary commanders and in its effort to prod reluctant Marxist rebel groups into negotiations. Commanders on both sides are wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges.
The change is sharply at odds with Colombian policy from the early 1990's, when a grinding terror war by drug traffickers against the state prompted President César Gaviria into offering a waiver from extradition. In 1991, Colombia's new Constitution even forbade extradition, straining relations with Washington.
Extradition was reinstated in 1997, but only 22 Colombians were extradited to the United States in the following four years. Then, in 2001, President Andrés Pastrana, whose government became the recipient of sharply increased anti-drug aid from Washington, sent 26 Colombians to the United States.
Mr. Uribe has become President Bush's closest ally in a region marked by rising anti-American sentiment, and he has shown himself to be even more willing to extradite Colombians accused of drug trafficking.
Colombia has sent off once feared traffickers like Arcangel Henao-Montoya, a brutal leader of the powerful Norte del Valle cartel indicted by a United States District Court in Brooklyn, and former Senator Samuel Santander Lopesierra, who is accused of working closely with drug kingpins.
Known as the Chess Player for his shrewdness, Mr. Rodríguez Orejuela ran a major drug cartel with his brother, Miguel, who remains in jail in Colombia. In all, the Uribe administration has approved the extraditions of 230 people, about 200 of them Colombians bound for the United States.
"Extradition has always been, until very recently, the major question of friction between the United States and Colombia, but it has become a much more normal activity," said Phillip McLean, a former deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Bogotá who follows Colombia for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The Uribe administration has handed over 41 defendants to the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District in Manhattan alone. An additional 46 trafficking or money laundering suspects are in custody in Colombia, awaiting final orders extraditing them to the Manhattan prosecutors.
"Colombia is an important, if not the most important, partner in our globalized law enforcement efforts," David N. Kelley, the United States attorney for the Southern District, said by phone from Manhattan. "They have really walked with us hand in hand to help get a chokehold on the jugular vein of the cocaine imported into the United States."
The extraditions come as an intensive, multibillion-dollar American-backed anti-drug program, mostly in the form of defoliation of drug crops, enters its fifth year.
Coupled with heightened interdiction efforts and extradition, the initiative has led to record drug seizures and arrests, along with a sharp drop in the size of Colombia's vast fields of coca, the crop used to make cocaine. It has not, however, led to lower purity cocaine or higher prices on American streets. This puzzles counternarcotics officials, who contend that the results will soon be felt.
Whatever the ramifications of extradition for the drug trade, though, Mr. Uribe's government has still found it useful for political purposes.
In 2002, the indictment and corresponding extradition of two top paramilitary commanders helped divide their powerful right-wing organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, speeding the group's participation in disarmament talks.
The political use of extradition has never been more evident than in recent days, when the Supreme Court approved the extradition of a banker-turned-Marxist-rebel-commander, Rafael Palmera, who is in jail, and a paramilitary commander, Salvatore Mancuso, who is leading the paramilitaries in talks with the government.
It is clear Mr. Palmera is in the most danger of being flown to the United States, since his group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, continues to fight the state. Mr. Mancuso is shielded for now.
Mr. Uribe has said that "extradition, in all its rigor will be applied to those not in a peace process," referring to the guerrillas. Yet, the government is willing to show flexibility toward Mr. Palmera and his group if its leaders embark on talks leading to the release of kidnapping victims, including three Americans held by the guerrillas.
With the paramilitaries, the issue of extradition has become more prickly, and politically charged.
Publicly, the Uribe administration and the United States have stated that commanders can be extradited even while talks are going on.
But Mr. Uribe's peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, recently signaled to paramilitary commanders that the government could be flexible on extradition, according to transcripts of peace talks that were obtained by the Colombian magazine Semana.
The United States has also said that while it wants commanders extradited, it is up to Mr. Uribe to decide in individual cases. The Colombian president has said that "those who want to avoid" extradition need to "demonstrate good faith and the will to mend their ways to the international community."
That has raised the hackles of people like Gustavo Petro, a left-leaning congressman, who argues that the government and the United States are being soft on paramilitary commanders, even though most are listed as major drug traffickers by the Bush administration.
"The United States government has escalated the extraditions of old Mafiosi that are now out of the business or are still in it to a small degree," Mr. Petro said. "And they have been lax against the big traffickers who are sitting at the negotiating table," referring to paramilitaries locked in talks with Mr. Uribe's government.