WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration insisted yesterday that it has no complaints about Colombia's new policy of refusing to extradite alleged drug traffickers who turn themselves in and confess to at least one crime.
In fact, Colombian President Cesar Gaviria was rewarded yesterday for his efforts to strengthen the beleaguered judicial system in his own country with a $50 million pledge from President Bush aimed mostly at helping with the effort.
"Colombia is not alone in this fight," Mr. Bush said at a White House ceremony after a 2 1/2 -hour visit. "We honor him and his countrymen -- knowing they've borne a very difficult burden in this war [against drug traffickers], and knowing that it is their survival that's at stake every day."
Although some leaders of the narcotics trafficking empire that supplies much of America's illicit drug market have seized on the new policy to escape justice in U.S. courts, the White House says the most important thing is that drug traffickers are coming to justice someplace.
The U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Thomas McNamara, called it "a very positive sign" that President Gaviria's incentive program to bring drug outlaws into court "seems to be working."
Western diplomats have complained that these ringleaders are merely hoping for greater leniency in Colombian courts, where many believe judges have been intimidated by the slayings of more than 500 police officers and 600 civilian officials in the past year.
But President Gaviria told Mr. Bush that his government had made great strides not only in the arrest of suspected traffickers but also in the interdiction of their product.
During the first six weeks of this year, for example, Colombia captured 11.5 tons of cocaine, twice as much as during the same period in 1990, he said.
"The important issue is not whether the prisons are located in Bogota or New York -- Colombia or the U.S. -- but that the traffickers are arrested and that trafficking is curtailed," said Bernard Aronson, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.
"This government is making more progress in crippling and stopping the traffic in cocaine than any previous government. We are very pleased with that," he said.
There is a move under way in the Colombian legislature to block any further extraditions to the United States, but Mr. Gaviria assured Mr. Bush that he did not support it.
The threat of facing trial and punishment in the United States has proved to be a useful tool in persuading drug suspects to take advantage of his new policy, he told the U.S. president.
A year after his nation joined with the United States and the three other Andean countries in a pact to fight the drug empire, Mr. Gaviria has developed a judicial reform policy that goes beyond the new lure for suspects.
He has also set up five special courts to streamline the judicial process and is establishing new protections for the judges.
One of the new agreements between the United States and Colombia signed this week provides for evidence-sharing between the two countries to strengthen those drug prosecutions.