Although it has relied heavily on extraditions in the past as a way to break up powerful criminal networks, the perception that criminals face lighter sentences in the United States has caused Colombia to reassess this strategy.
Colombia’s Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra (pictured) has been raising eyebrows recently by insinuating that the country may soon alter its reliance on extraditing criminals to the US to stand trial. In a March 29 interview with W Radio, Esguerra remarked that some who are sent to answer to justice in the US are given sentences that are “too short,” adding that Colombians should face domestic charges first before being sent abroad.
Esguerra clarified this statement in a subsequent interview in El Tiempo, saying that extraditions are not a sign that Colombia is incapable of enforcing the rule of law. Instead, he insisted that the process of approving an extradition depends on the gravity of charges in the foreign country. Esguerra also claimed that the country is at a “turning point” in its anti-drug strategy, and said that President Juan Manuel Santos will likely address the issue at the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.
Extradition has a long and tumultuous history in Colombia. Drug kingpin Pablo Escobar waged a war over the measure, leaving hundreds of civilians, police and judges dead before Colombian lawmakers and leaders banned extradition in the 1991 constitution.
The measure was reinstituted in 1995, and it’s generally believed that the prospect of extradition to the US has been the worst nightmare of Colombian drug traffickers. But this is only partly true. For convicted traffickers, a jail cell in the US has often meant losing touch with their families, as well as completely renouncing their positions within their organizations. In contrast, Colombia’s weak and corrupt justice system has provided prisoners with the ability to direct criminal activities from prison.
However, after extradition came into play again in the mid-1990s, traffickers started negotiating with US law enforcement, providing information in return for more lenient sentences. The results were sometimes dramatic reductions in time served for some of the most notorious underworld figures.
These included men like Nicolas Bergonzoli, a man who worked for several drug cartels before joining the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Bergonzoli served 39 months in a US jail and currently lives in Florida. He also helped broker deals for other drug traffickers, who received protection from the notorious AUC warlord Carlos Castaño so that rivals would not harm them or their families as they cooperated with US counterdrug agents. The extraditions reached the stage where many traffickers saw it as a way out of the business and a means by which they could legalize much of their “savings.”
During his two terms in office, President Alvaro Uribe dramatically increased extraditions. While only 333 Colombians were extradited since the country signed an extradition treaty with the US in 1982, Uribe handed over more than 1,100 to the US while in power.
Uribe relied on the measure as a way of breaking up large criminal networks, especially the former factions of the AUC. However, many believe Uribe abused the measure as well, sending AUC leaders to the US just as these leaders were beginning to implicate members of his own government in war crimes and corruption schemes.
Critics also said Uribe was simply currying favor with the United States, especially as it related to the extradition of suspected members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In a seeming response to both accusations, the Supreme Court blocked several high profile extraditions towards the end of Uribe’s term.
President Santos has seemingly continued the trend of sending large numbers of suspected traffickers to face trial in the United States. The president has authorized the extradition of at least 300 Colombian nationals so far.
However, according to legal experts consulted by El Colombiano, many Colombian drug traffickers still see extradition as a more promising option than remaining in Colombia, as US officials continue to offer favorable plea bargains in exchange for information on Colombia’s criminal underworld. US law enforcement officials dispute these claims.
However, for Colombians, this “leniency” was illustrated recently in the case of Phanor Arizabaleta Arzayus, a ranking member of the once-mighty Cali Cartel. Arizabaleta was extradited to the US on drug trafficking charges in 2011 but was only imprisoned there for eight months, a development which was met with criticism in Colombia. When he returned to Bogota in late March, he was taken into custody again, and will now likely live out the rest of his life in prison.
These deals are especially problematic in Colombia because they can also serve to shield human rights abusers in the country’s decades-long internal conflict. As InSight Crime has pointed out, many former paramilitary warlords that have been extradited to the US have had their records sealed, meaning that they are essentially beyond the reach of further prosecution in Colombia.
One such warlord, Salvatore Mancuso, is in close sentencing, and could receive close to 10 years, sources close to the case tell InSight Crime, much less than many in Colombia expected when he was sent to the US in 2008.
But if Colombia is to rely more heavily on its own justice system, it will have to address some major structural flaws. The entire judiciary branch is chronically understaffed, and court cases are often long, drawn out processes. When a case is heard in court, judges and prosecutors are frequently intimidated or paid off by criminal networks, contributing to a situation in which impunity remains the rule rather than the exception. According to a Justice Ministry report, less than three percent of all homicide cases between 2005 and 2008 resulted in a conviction.