Why you should care
A U.S. extradition program helps get some drug dealers off the street, but it might not lead to justice.
“Better a tomb in Colombia than a cell in the United States.” That was the battle cry of the first generation of Colombian drug lords when they declared war against extradition in the 1980s.
How the world has changed. Thirty years on, a trip to the United States is often the first request of captured narcos, angling for extradition, a light sentence and early retirement.
The deals get bad guys off the streets. Yet they’ve created a growing backlash in Colombia, where outraged headlines denounce the kingpins’ “American Dream” of seeking retirement in a “narcos’ judicial paradise.” It’s a complicated issue. The U.S. is happy to be nabbing hundreds of drug traffickers, seriously degrading the cartels, and Colombia is also happy to see narcos out of business. But increasingly, Colombians figure they are getting the short end of the stick on the extradition deals.
Drug lords were pretty much untouchable in Colombia during the 1980s cocaine boom, and when extradition was first proposed the reaction was brutal. The country’s leading traffickers, led by Pablo Escobar, dubbed themselves “the Extraditables” and declared war on the state, bringing the country to its knees.
A trip to the United States is often the first request of captured narcos.
“In my dad’s time, extradition was the only deterrent, the only thing the drug traffickers were afraid of, but now it has become an attractive option,” he tells OZY.Luis Carlos Galán was then one of the few political leaders brave enough to demand extradition. Escobar’s henchmen shot him to death in 1989, months before a presidential election he was almost certain to win. Extradition was finally introduced eight years after his death, but in one of history’s ironies, today his son, Sen. Juan Manuel Galán, is one of Colombia’s fiercest critics of the process.
If we hand over half our money, the North American government lets us live with the other half, and we stay in the country with various advantages.“After all the damage they have caused here in Colombia, all the victims they have left, these drug traffickers are obtaining U.S. residency and protection for themselves and their families, and are even setting up legal businesses.”
After the first traffickers to face extradition fought bitter legal battles to stay in Colombia, the smart ones figured a better way. They cut a deal with U.S. authorities, exchanging information and loot for lenient sentences, protection and getting to keep part of their drug money.
“If we hand over half our money, the North American government lets us live with the other half, and we stay in the country with various advantages,” said Medellin Cartel’s Carlos Zapata, known as “the Doctor,” to the media. He was one of the first narcos to cut such a deal in the late ’90s, and, after serving a five-year sentence, Zapata went on to work in a Miami law office helping extradited Colombians.
Many drug traffickers now opt to fast-track the process, aware that jail time in Colombia won’t count toward a U.S. sentence and also that they can bargain best with fresh information.
Joaquin Perez, a Miami-based attorney representing some of the most notorious extradited drug traffickers and paramilitaries, argues it’s a good deal.
“The extradition business is a great business for Colombia because the U.S. is taking individuals who have potentially committed a crime in Colombia, they are bringing them here, they are prosecuting them here, they are putting them in jail here, and the U.S. is paying for all of that,” he says.
But thanks might not always be the right response.
In 2002, Victor Patiño, alias “the Chemist,” a former Cali Cartel and Norte del Valle Cartel kingpin implicated in at least 150 murders, decided to turn informant in exchange for a seven-year U.S. prison sentence. The decision cost the lives of more than 30 members of his family, friends and business associates, who were slain in retaliation.
Now investigators will have to go and beg him for his testimony in his living room in Miami.
After U.S. prison, Patiño returned to Colombia, set out for revenge and reclaimed parts of his lost empire. He launched a mafia war that has cost thousands of lives in the city of Cali and the Pacific coast region and which continues to rage today.
Even more controversial than those who return to Colombia are the narcos who stay in the United States, such as the drug trafficking paramilitary warlord Juan Carlos “El Tuso” Sierra.
Sierra completed a five-year sentence in March 2013, then secured permission to remain in the United States earlier this year by arguing his life would be in danger if he returned to Colombia.
The release of Sierra is a particular sore point as he was one of numerous paramilitary leaders whose extradition on drug charges brought a halt to the testimony they had promised to give in Colombia on human rights abuses committed on their orders.
“Now investigators will have to go and beg him for his testimony in his living room in Miami,” one disgruntled prosecutor told local newspaper El Colombiano.
According to Perez, it’s rare for permission to stay in the United States to be on the table during negotiations, and most released narcos face deportation when they leave prison.
However, in 2012, Colombian newspaper El Tiempo reported that in Florida alone there were around 100 ex-con Colombian drug traffickers, doing everything from selling horses to remodeling properties.
The U.S. maintains extradition and deal cutting are key law enforcement tools in the fight against transnational crime.
No doubt removing many hundreds of criminal gang members from Colombia has made life easier for the Colombian government and helped strengthen it, perhaps enough to make it conceivable for Colombia to handle more cases under its own justice system. At the same time, there’s no evidence that extraditions have had much impact on the volume of drug trafficking.“Cooperation from defendants leads to more arrests and indictments, which contributes to the dismantling of the entire structure of organized crime syndicates,” said the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, in a written answer to questions. “The strength of the U.S. criminal justice system is instrumental to our success.”
And critics such as Galán are calling for a renegotiation of Colombia’s extradition treaty.
“All this cooperation has to be more balanced, it has to benefit both sides,” he says. “At the moment it’s unbalanced, asymmetrical. It benefits the U.S., which controls the process, more than Colombia.”
James Bargent writes about Latin America for OZY. He’s a freelance journalist based in Medellín, Colombia, who’s written for the Miami Herald, The Pan-American Post, the Toronto Star, and The Times Educational Supplement, among others. He also investigates, edits and writes for InSight Crime.