Colombia Seizes Just 3% of Criminal Assets

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A former top prosecutor has said that Colombia seizes less than $750 million a year in illegal assets, but that a recent reform could cut in half the time it takes to confiscate illicit property, suggesting that the government is poised to make a serious dent in the finances of criminal groups.

Former Colombian Vice Prosecutor General Wilson Alejandro Martinez Sanchez, author of an upcoming study on the topic, told InSight Crime that between $500 million and $750 million in illegal assets are seized each year in Colombia.

This figure would represent 3 percent or less of the $18 billion annual earnings of Colombia’s organized crime groups, according to an estimate given in a World Bank study.

A January update to the property seizure law (pdf) will give authorities greater ability to seize assets from suspected criminals who have not yet been convicted, according to Martinez. He estimates the new legislation will cut the average time needed to complete property seizures from seven years to three or four years.

“These modifications allow the property seizure law to fully realize its potential in the fight against organized crime,” Martinez told InSight Crime.

InSight Crime Analysis

Colombia’s existing property seizure law was hailed by former President Alvaro Uribe as one of the country’s “most feared” anti-drug tools, and authorities succesfully used it in previous decades to confiscate assets from major organizations including the Medellin Cartel, the Norte del Valle Cartel, and the Cali Cartel.

However, bureaucratic hurdles — such as inefficient judicial proceedings — have slowed property seizure cases and limited the law’s power, as Martinez noted to InSight Crime.

There is also the issue of corruption in the handling of seized assets. Colombia’s National Narcotics Directorate — which was formerly responsible for managing such assets — is currently being disbanded, following a scandal in which billions of dollars seized from drug traffickers were found to have gone missing. One police colonel in Santa Cruz, Bolivia also highlighted the potential for mismanagement of seized assets when he told InSight Crime his office was looking to seize properties from traffickers in order to acquire new office space.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

Colombia is one of just a handful in Latin America which has property seizure laws in place. Guatemala has faced similar bureaucratic challenges as Colombia in implementing such legislation, and Mexico opened just 29 asset seizures cases between 2009 and 2012.

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