BOGOTA, Colombia -- Several of the world's top drug traffickers have finalized plea bargaining agreements allowing them to serve fewer than 10 years in jail, according to Colombian officials. The sentences stand in stark contrast to the life terms that they would likely receive if found guilty by U.S. courts.
U.S. officials are deeply concerned about the negotiations, which affect, among others, three brothers who allegedly helped found the so-called Medellin cocaine cartel. The officials note that other major traffickers such as Carlos Lehder, another cartel founder, are serving life sentences in U.S. maximum security prisons.
In 1991, Colombia passed a new constitution that forbids extradition of citizens for trial abroad. Instead, authorities must rely on a combination of police pressure, promises of leniency and plea bargaining to persuade traffickers to surrender here and confess.
Francisco Jose Sintura, Colombia's deputy prosecutor general, said that after three months of negotiations, he had completed sentencing agreements with the lawyers of Fabio, Jorge Luis and Juan David Ochoa. The multimillionaire brothers are accused of helping Pablo Escobar supply most of the U.S. cocaine market in the 1980s.
Mr. Sintura would not discuss details of the agreements, to be announced in early February. He said only that each brother would receive a sentence of between 17 and 24 years.
The country's penal code dictates halved sentences for suspects like the Ochoas who cooperate with authorities by surrendering and confessing to at least one crime. Additional reductions are given to suspects who inform on accomplices, surrender ill-gotten gains and work in jail.
The resulting reduction in time spent behind bars was demonstrated dramatically this week in the case of another major drug figure, Ivan Urdinola.
At the time of his capture in April, Urdinola was accused of ordering the killings of scores of people, moving to take control of Colombia's growing heroin business and trafficking in cocaine.
Mr. Sintura said that evidence linking Urdinola to several murders was so weak that prosecutors could not charge him.
Murder in Colombia carries a maximum sentence of 30 years, six years more than the maximum for drug trafficking.
Under the plea bargain, Urdinola confessed to trafficking and several related crimes, surrendered more than $1 million in cash, gold and vehicles and informed on an accomplice, who later surrendered.
In return, the prosecutor's office agreed to give Urdinola a 17.5-year sentence, affirmed Monday by one of the country's criminal judges. But officials admit that after the numerous reductions, the convicted trafficker is likely to serve no more than four to seven years in jail.
That possibility has U.S. officials questioning whether Colombian authorities are conceding too much under the new plea bargaining system, put in place in July.
Urdinola's jail term is likely to become the first of a series of relatively light sentences for Colombian drug bosses. For example, even if prosecutors give Fabio Ochoa the maximum 24-year sentence for trafficking, he could reduce his actual time behind bars by 74 percent to just more than six years by taking advantage of the same reductions that Urdinola received.
Since Ochoa has already spent two years behind bars, he would be out of jail in 1997.