Jail trafficking reports could end Colombian sentence deals

April 30, 1991|By Ana Arana | Ana Arana,Special to The Sun

BOGOTA, Colombia -- President Cesar Gaviria's policy of enticing major drug traffickers to surrender to Colombian authorities for trial in local courts as a way to avoid extradition to the United States could be threatened by allegations that three of the country's biggest alleged traffickers who accepted the offer are continuing to run their cocaine business from inside prison.

Brothers Fabio, Jorge Luis and Juan David Ochoa, suspected members of the Medellin cartel, were the first to accept President Gaviria's offer to surrender.

The allegations against the brothers are being made by both U.S. officials and Colombian police. One senior U.S. official in Bogota said he was certain that the Ochoas were trafficking, although he admitted that he did not have evidence that could stand up in court.

The suspicions of continued trafficking surfaced a few weeks ago, after Colombian police found a cocaine distribution center and seized 12 tons at farms in Monteria, capital of Cordoba province, an area where the Ochoas were known to be large landowners.

After the seizure, the national police chief, Gen. Miguel Antonio Gomez Padilla, said that the farms "were owned or used to be owned by the Ochoas."

Another law enforcement source added that the Ochoas "had left a substructure that can run by itself without direct supervision."

Government officials apparently are not pleased by the police chief's remarks. "If they have evidence, they should give it to the courts," said a high official, visibly annoyed.

The case against the Ochoas is expected to test the wisdom of Mr. Gaviria's drug policy, which was initiated shortly after he took office last August.

Mr. Gaviria abandoned the hard-line, U.S.-supported military campaign against the traffickers, a campaign backed up by the prospect of extradition for trial in the United States.

He lifted the extradition threat, and in turn the traffickers ended a wave of terrorism that had caused hundreds of deaths in 1989 and 1990. The surrender of the Ochoa brothers gave a major boost to the new policy.

But if the new trafficking charges are proved, it could complicate the case and throw a monkey wrench into the government's hopes to entice more traffickers, especially Medellin drug baron Pablo Escobar, to surrender, legal experts said.

In the United States, the Ochoas, along with other members of the Medellin cartel, are charged in several indictments with masterminding the mass production and shipment of most of the cocaine that entered the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Fabio Ochoa is also named as co-conspirator in the assassination of Drug Enforcement Administration informant Barry Seal in 1985.

The trial against the three brothers is expected to take place within the next year. The government is awaiting evidence from other countries, especially the United States, before it proceeds.

Here, the only charge the Ochoas have been booked on is trafficking in fighting bulls.

Sources close to the government complain that the allegations against the Ochoas coming from the United States suggest that Washington lacks trust in the Gaviria policy.

"We did in a few months what the Drug Enforcement Administration couldn't do in years," boasted a high government official, rejecting comments by U.S. law enforcement officials that Colombian courts would be lenient with major traffickers.

To complement the more lenient policy, Mr. Gaviria has introduced laws that revamped the country's legal system, introducing "judges without faces" and "witnesses without names" for drug trafficking cases.

U.S. officials have said that justice will be served only if the Ochoas and other major traffickers serve jail terms of 10 to 15 years.

"There is skepticism whether the [Colombian] judicial system can withstand the pressure. This is a system that has been under threat from organized crime. Can it be resuscitated, that is the question," said one senior U.S. official.

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