When he was the king of cocaine, the prospect of doing hard time in an American penitentiary was about the only thing that made Pablo Escobar's blood run cold. Living by the motto "Better a tomb in Colombia than a prison cell in the United States," Escobar unleashed a wave of car bombings and assassinations that forced the Colombian government to water down extradition laws. Cowed officials even built Escobar a five-star jailhouse, with a Jacuzzi, discotheque and fake waterfall, for a brief stint behind bars before the drug lord was gunned down by police in 1993.
In contrast to all the bloodletting and legal gymnastics that surrounded extradition in the 1980s and '90s, sending Colombian criminal suspects north has of late become an almost everyday ritual. In December, drug lord Diego Montoya a.k.a. Don Diego, or the Boss of Bosses in Colombia's underworld was extradited to the U.S., where he had been on the FBI's most-wanted list along with Osama bin Laden. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has dispatched nearly 800 thugs to the U.S. about two per week since he was first elected in 2002. That is 10 times more than his predecessor, Andres Pastrana. The policy helps Uribe stay in the good graces of the U.S. government, which props up the Andean nation with about $600 million in annual aid. It also rids Colombia of the headache of prosecuting and jailing criminal masterminds. The threat of extradition has helped to demobilize 30,000 paramilitary fighters who were financed by the drug trade.
But critics have begun to question the trend. They call extradition an expensive, overused legal procedure and one that like most drug-war tools has failed to stem the flow of illegal narcotics into the U.S. "Every day we extradite more people, but the problem continues," says Maria Victoria Llorente, director of the Bogotá think tank Ideas for Peace. (While the U.S. says Colombia's cocaine production has decreased from 680 tons in 2002 to 535 tons in 2007, the United Nations says it has increased from 580 tons to 630 in the same period.)
Besides the cost to U.S. taxpayers of prosecuting all those extraditados which often involves transportation and housing for witnesses, hiring bilingual lawyers and translating paperwork tens of thousands of dollars are also spent annually to incarcerate each foreign detainee. What's more, for every Don Diego, there are dozens who rarely merit the trouble of extradition. "There is no system to filter the important from the unimportant," says Joaquin Perez, a Miami-based lawyer who defends accused Colombian traffickers. Many of those caught in the net are small-fry like the smuggler's driver, the document forger or the guy who prepared the box lunches for the crews of the go-fast boats. Once in U.S. custody, many high-level smugglers do cop pleas and then turn on one another, allowing prosecutors to weaken their organizations, says Josh Levine, former chief of the international narcotics trafficking unit of the U.S. Attorney's office for the southern district of New York. Prosecutors also note that little guys often help build cases against the capos. But Perez estimates that half of all extradited Colombians have no business bobbing through the U.S. criminal-justice system.
A generation ago, extradition was aimed at violent kingpins whose cartels threatened the Colombian government's stability. But the kind of narco-terrorism that cost thousands of Colombian lives in that era, and which stemmed largely from the drug lords' determination to erase extradition from the law books, has since been reined in. As for deterrence, even supporters of extradition acknowledge that fallen drug bosses are simply replaced by their ambitious underlings. "We oversold it," concedes Myles Frechette, who as U.S. ambassador in the 1990s pressured Colombian officials to reinstate extradition after it had been banned by the 1991 Constitution. (It would be restored by a constitutional amendment.) "We said we'd get the kingpins and that'll wrap up the whole organization. But that was never the case."
It's also unclear why some suspects earn a one-way ticket north while others stay put. In 2004 guerrilla commander Simón Trinidad was extradited and convicted of conspiracy to kidnap three U.S. military contractors, even though he was only loosely linked to the crime. But Colombia's Supreme Court this month blocked President Uribe's order to extradite Alexander Farfán, the cruel rebel prison warden who is accused by those same American hostages of putting chains around their necks and threatening to execute them. Farfán faces federal charges in the U.S. and Colombia for hostage-taking.
Not surprisingly, the political ABCs often trump purely judicial considerations. In the post-Escobar era, paramilitary commanders emerged as some of Colombia's most dangerous narco-criminals. By deftly holding the sword of extradition on drug charges over their heads, Uribe convinced dozens of these warlords to turn themselves in and demobilize their troops. Those who cooperated and confessed were eligible for light sentences. But soon these death-squad leaders began implicating political allies of the President, including lawmakers, army officers, the government's spy chief and even Uribe's cousin, who was forced to resign from the Senate. (The spy chief and Uribe's cousin were both charged with conspiring with the paramilitaries.) In what was widely interpreted as a move to halt the embarrassing revelations, Uribe in one fell swoop dispatched 14 top paramilitary chieftains to the U.S. last year on drug charges.
The mass extraditions have stymied Colombian prosecutors looking into paramilitary massacres and land grabs and hamstrung their efforts to compensate the victims of these crimes. True, the extradited all face lengthy prison terms in the U.S. But because they only have to answer for their drug crimes, the warlord defendants now have little motive for elaborating on their human rights atrocities back in their homeland. Only one has provided Colombian prosecutors with extensive testimony, though teams from the Colombian attorney general's office are in the U.S. this week to try again. "The investigations lost a lot of momentum because it became much harder for the Colombians to interview the paramilitaries," says Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch in Washington.
In the heyday of the Medellin and Cali cartels, motorcycle-mounted assassins shot down judges and witnesses while kingpins ran their drug empires from behind bars. Now Colombia has a modern maximum-security prison to lock down high-risk criminals. The judiciary, in turn, has switched from a written system to oral and accusatory trials similar to those in U.S. courts, making it harder for narcos to manipulate the proceedings. Still, many law-enforcement experts vigorously defend extradition as narco-traffickers now try to rig the system in more subtle ways. Last year, Guillermo Valencia Cossio, chief government prosecutor for Medellín and the surrounding Antioquia state and brother of Colombia's Justice Minister was indicted for allegedly collaborating with a powerful drug baron. He was charged with conspiring with a drug baron and is under house arrest.
Housing world-class criminals for more than a few months can still test the limits of Colombia's prison system. Take the strange saga of Boss of Bosses Montoya, who headed the Northern Valley cartel. After he was arrested in 2007, Montoya presented such a security risk that prison officials decided to house him on a Navy ship off Colombia's Pacific Coast. But during his transfer there, clueless Colombian agents picked up the wrong prisoner, a paramilitary warlord known as Don Berna. After the confusion was cleared up, the two dons were eventually extradited to the U.S.