The Cocaine Lawyers

June 07, 1995

Devotees of the "Godfather" films will hardly be surprised by the arrest of six American lawyers, including three former Justice Department officials, on charges of "going far beyond zealous legal representation" in protecting and aiding clients high in the echelons of the dangerously powerful Cali drug cartel operating out of Colombia.

Heretofore, U.S. efforts to combat crime-spawning drug traffic have focused mainly on Colombian cocaine kings who have turned their country into a narco-democracy. Now prosecutors are targeting American agents of this mafia, including lawyers charged with racketeering and conspiracy.

Predictably, attorneys for the indicted attorneys are charging the Justice Department with trying to deny the cartel bosses the most effective legal defense money can buy. We will leave that to the courts to decide. Meantime, let the spotlight illuminate how Colombian drug trafficking has evolved from the thuggery of the unlamented Medellin cartel into the corporate criminality of the Cali cartel.

As such Cali kingpins as Gilberto Rodriguez and Jose Santacruz Londono seek respectability by working out a wrist-slapping "surrender" to a Colombian government they have corrupted from top to bottom, they have continued to make billions of dollars by smuggling cocaine and heroin into the United States and other vulnerable countries.

In these operations, the U.S. government now alleges, they have been coached by their American attorneys in how to thwart the justice system by intimidating or bribing would-be squealers, laundering money and avoiding extradition. The most prominent of the 62 people accused is Michael Abbell, who as head of the Justice Department's Office of International Affairs in the early 1980s was in charge of investigating the same cartel kingpins he took on as clients once he left government.

Among the five other American lawyers named in the indictment are Donald Ferguson and Joel Rosenthal, two former U.S. attorneys who are members of what is disparagingly described as the "white powder bar" now flourishing in Miami, the center for drug distribution throughout the United States.

The crackdown on alleged U.S. abetters of the Cali cartel does not, of course, change the disgraceful situation in Colombia itself, where the kingpins can go about their business secure in the knowledge that their government will not send them to face U.S. justice. The time clearly has come to increase U.S. pressure on President Ernesto Samper Pizano, whose election last year is believed to have been greased with drug money.

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