Shielding Drug Traffickers

December 23, 1990

Colombia's new policy of shielding drug traffickers from extradition in exchange for confessions and promises to quit the trade raises troubling questions. Five traffickers have turned themselves in so far, under a decree issued by President Cesar Gavira. That includes Fabio Ochoa Vasquez, one of the alleged leaders of the Medellin cocaine cartel, who is charged with helping to kill a federal informant.

Fabio Ochoa, 33, had not been charged with a crime under Colombian law but has been indicted in the United States of murder and smuggling in $1 billion worth of illicit drugs. President Gavira claimed proof of his policy's success, but law-enforcement experts noted that his concessions to traffickers included special prisons and shortened sentences for their admitted crimes.

That raises doubts of the sincerity and depth of cooperation U.S. law-enforcement agencies can expect from Mr. Gavira's government. Closing out the massive drug-production and smuggling from the Andean mountains cannot be accomplished with a few showcase surrenders, light sentences for people with heavy criminal histories and business as usual in the cocaine fields.

Colombians and others in drug-producing nations point to Americans' appetite for drugs as the real culprit in the drug wars, and there is some merit to their claims. On that front, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has reported sharply lowered numbers of people who use cocaine. The report is hotly disputed by members of Congress and drug policy experts, but cocaine-related hospital emergency visits have declined from the peak of 11,248 to 7,532. That's still three times the 2,597 recorded in 1985, but it does track with other reports that substance abuse is down.

American drug appetites are not the whole story. Running a criminal apparatus, bribing bankers and public officials, murdering opponents and operating in general defiance of law is morally repugnant. It ought to be prosecuted to the full extent possible. Governments that protect drug criminals and plead exemption from responsibility are part of the problem, not the solution.

If Fabio Ochoa walks free in two years -- after confessing to violating a law that should make him do 30 years' hard time -- with official protection against U.S. justice, President Gavira's policy will have been shown to be a sham.

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