Deadly twists in Colombia drug case test U.S. relations
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
BOGOTA, Colombia -- A huge shipment of cocaine seized by Colombian
on its way to Cuba has turned into a nightmare for authorities here, sparking four
murders and tensions between U.S. and Colombian prosecutors.
Gunmen have killed two potential witnesses, plus the wife and
son of one of them,
and have forced authorities to transfer the 1998 case to a ``faceless prosecutor
whose identity is kept secret to protect his life.
One suspect's fight against his extradition from the United States
concerns that Bogota will balk at sending Colombians to face U.S. justice if
American courts rule in his favor.
Washington has long insisted on extraditing drug lords to remove
them from a
Colombian judicial system where they can bribe or threaten their way into lighter
sentences and easy prison conditions.
In a further twist to the case, the man fighting his extradition
from the United
States is the son of a Colombian senator assassinated for helping to draft the
U.S.-Colombian treaty that allows extraditions.
The 7.2-ton shipment in the case, one of the largest ever confiscated
was found in false compartments of six freight containers seized Dec. 3, 1998, in
the Caribbean port of Cartagena.
The containers were loaded with barrels of plastic resin consigned
to a firm in
Havana that manufactured plastic figurines for export to Europe. The firm's owners
were two Spaniards and a Cuban government enterprise.
A fierce battle erupted in Washington last year as congressional
argued that the seizure showed that Cuba should be added to the U.S. list of
``major transit points for U.S.-bound narcotics.
Administration officials said there was no hard evidence the shipment
destined for the U.S. market, however, and President Clinton left Cuba out of the
``majors list he issued in November.
Colombian counternarcotics officials and prosecutors say they
believe the two
Spaniards planned to redirect the containers from Havana to Spain, along with
shipments of their figurines, and sell the cocaine in Europe.
But they admit their information on the final destination of the
drugs came from
``We reached a dead end when the Cuban authorities all but guaranteed
trail led only to the two Spaniards, one counternarcotics official said.
Prosecutors say they have made progress in investigating the Colombian
the shipment, valued at $23 million at Bogota wholesale prices and many times
that at European or U.S. street sale prices.
DENIAL OF GUILT
Arrest warrants have been issued for the Spaniards, Jose Royo
Llorca and Jose
Herrera Campos, who deny any knowledge of the drugs. But neither Cuba nor
Colombia has sought their extradition, and they remain free in Spain.
Two men charged with minor roles in the shipment will soon go
on trial, seven
others are in jail while under investigation and four others are wanted for
questioning, prosecutors say.
The case began taking turns for the worse when a potential witness
financial dealings behind the shipment, Heriberto Bengoechea, was shot to death
in December in the city of Cali.
Three weeks later, gunmen killed Ricardo Estrada Vergara, a suspected
in the deal and owner of E.I. Caribe, the firm that was shipping the plastic resins
to Cuba. His wife and son were shot to death in their Cali home the next day.
Prosecutors say Estrada Vergara, a Seventh-Day Adventist, had
been hiding in
church buildings since the drug shipment was seized and may have been thinking
about cooperating with police before his death.
The attorney general's office transferred the case in January
to one of its
``faceless prosecutors, anonymous officials used in cases where drug traffickers
or criminals have threatened witnesses or court officials.
The case took another strange turn after prosecutors issued an
arrest warrant in
December for Victor Tafur, 36, son of Sen. Donald Tafur, shot dead in 1992 for his
work on the U.S.-Colombian extradition pact.
Victor Tafur was arrested by FBI agents March 4 near his mother's
home in New
Hope, Pa., where he had moved to recover from injuries he suffered in the crash of
a small plane outside Bogota early last year.
Prosecutors say several large personal checks signed by Tafur
were deposited in
a bank account of Estrada Vergara's firm. That shows that he helped finance the
cocaine shipment, they say.
Tafur denies any wrongdoing and says the money came from his father's
560 million pesos, paid to his mother in 1998. He said the family wanted to
change the pesos into U.S. dollars and deposit them in a Swiss bank.