Extradition from Colombia Still a Tool for Justice and Abuse

August 11, 2011

Extradition to stand trial in the U.S., long the biggest fear of Colombian drug traffickers, could now be a softer option, offering shorter jail terms and even impunity to criminals.

The first treaty governing extradition of Colombians to the U.S., most on drug trafficking and money laundering charges, came into force in 1982. It was the subject of fierce opposition from criminal interests, most notably Pablo Escobar, who tried to force the government to block the measure through targeted assassinations and bombing attacks. In 1991, due in part to this pressure, a new constitution banned the extradition of nationals, but this measure was overturned in 1997. Fewer than 400 Colombians were extradited in the first few years after extradition was reintroduced, but more than 1,100 were during President Alvaro Uribe’s time in power, between 2002 and 2010.

The prospect of extradition was hated and feared by Colombia’s criminals. In foreign jails, as well as being far from their families, they would be unable to exercise the kind of influence that they might in Colombia’s weak and corrupt justice system. But according to a report in Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Colombian criminals are increasingly chosing not to fight extradition. One reason for this, according to the paper, is that the time spent opposing the process, often two years, does not count towards their sentence in the U.S., so the legal battle could simply lengthen the time they spend in prison. Another reason given by lawyers who spoke to El Tiempo is that, if prisoners choose not to fight extradition, they have a better chance of gaining concessions by cooperating with U.S. justice, as they can offer up-to-date knowledge of drug trafficking activities.

This kind of bargaining — providing intelligence about their associates and trafficking business — can allow high-level drug traffickers to gain major shortening of their sentences. This has garnered a fair amount of criticism in Colombia. In addition, paramilitary leaders who have committed serious human rights violations, responsible for ordering massacres and torture, face only drug trafficking charges in the U.S. It may be easier for paramilitaries to make beneficial deals with the U.S., as the authorities in that country would not face public pressure to punish these men in the same way that Colombian authorities would.

Most notorious was the surprise extradition of fourteen of the biggest paramilitary leaders, who had surrendered to Colombian justice via the peace accords made between the government and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) in the mid 2000s. The stated reason was the commanders’ failure to cooperate fully with the peace process and end their drug trafficking activities.

Some have suggested that part of the reason for the mass extradition of the paramilitary leaders in 2008 was a desire on the part of authorities to stem the flood of details regarding AUC collaboration with politicians. Information about these ties, present on a much greater scale than had previously been realized, began spilling into the public domain when the paramilitary bosses began testifying about the politicians they had had dealings with, in what became known as the “parapolitics” scandal.

Indeed, the extradition did hinder the delivery of paramilitary testimony. There are reports in Colombian media that, two years on from the mass extradition, in May 2010, only six of the paramilitary bosses sent to the U.S. had testified before Colombia courts, as had been promised. There are various explanations for this: many of the jailed warlords feared for their families in Colombia, saying that their relatives had not been given the protection they were promised, and could suffer revenge attacks if the boss revealed information about his criminal dealings.

A report by Berkeley University in 2010 argued that extradition had granted impunity to many paramilitary leaders. In at least seven cases the records of these men have been sealed, so that there is no way of knowing where they are or even if they are still in prison. This means that Colombian justice does not have access to these men, who will not then testify about the horrendous crimes they committed in their home country. For many who lost relatives to the paramilitary atrocities, this means they may never know what exactly happened to their relatives, or where their bodies were dumped afterwards.

In a recent interview with El Tiempo, police chief General Oscar Naranjo defended the process of extradition, denying that it offered impunity to criminals. He said that Colombian authorities expected the U.S. to begin sharing more information on the whereabouts of extradited criminals, and on any information that they handed over. According to Naranjo, extradition is a vital weapon against crime, as it breaks the ties between imprisoned criminal bosses and their organizations, and stops them running their operations from jail. His argument is backed by many incidences of criminal bosses continuing to exert power after being imprisoned in Colombia. One clear example is that of Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” who was Medellin’s biggest criminal leader for many years. He continued to run the city’s underworld after his arrest in 2005, and it was only when he was sent to the U.S. in 2008 that a succession crisis kicked off in his group, the Oficina de Envigado.

The question now is how useful extradition remains as a judicial tool in Colombia, with some signs that it is increasingly employed for political ends. A clear example is the case of Walid Makled, a confessed drug trafficker who was captured in Colombia in 2010. Both Venezuela and the U.S. requested his extradition, but after some months of delay Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos plumped for Venezuela. Santos’ government has given various explanations for this decision, including that Venezuela handed their request in first. But it seems likely that Bogota judged it more politically expedient to build ties with their neighbor, in the hopes of gaining further cooperation in rebuilding trade ties and security cooperation fractured under the watch of former President Alvaro Uribe. Given the growing presence of Mexican drug trafficking organizations on Colombian soil, Colombia’s recently-negotiated extradition treaty with that country raises the possibility of more cases like Makled’s in the future, where the government’s loyalties may be divided.

Extradition has proven helpful in Colombia when employed to cut off criminal warlords from their organizations. But as indicated by the sealing of paramilitary testimony in the U.S., extradition has also served to undermine Colombia’s long and difficult reconciliation process. In many ways, especially when it comes to the victims of the AUC’s human rights crimes, extradition has obstructed justice rather than ensured it.

This article was written by Hannah Stone and published by InSightCrime on August 10, 2011.

To find additional global criminal news, please read The Global Criminal Defense Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN List Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.

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Alleged Mexican Drug Kingpin ‘La Barbie’ Seeks Extradition to U.S.

September 13, 2010

Edgar Valdez Villareal, a U.S.-born alleged drug lord who was captured in Mexico last week, wants to return to his roots in Texas to face trial rather than stay in a Mexican jail, his lawyer said.

Valdez, called “La Barbie” in Mexico for his green eyes and sandy colored hair, has a reputation for beheading opponents in Mexico’s violent drug wars. He fears that he will get killed in a Mexican prison, according to Kent Schaffer, his Houston-based lawyer.

Schaffer asked U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual to appeal to the Mexican government to deport Valdez to the U.S., where he faces charges of drug trafficking.

Valdez denies all charges against him, and denies that he was responsible for any beheadings.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy said it deferred to the Mexican government on the deportation issue. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department wouldn’t comment specifically on the request.

Valdez is being held for a 40-day period while Mexican police investigate charges against him. Mexican officials say they will decide later on whether he will face charges in Mexico or whether he will be deported to the U.S., where he faces charges of trafficking tons of cocaine in Georgia, Texas and Louisiana.

A spokeswoman for the office of Mexico’s attorney general said Valdez is being held at federal police headquarters, where he is safe.

The deportation request is an unusual one in the history of Latin American drug trafficking. In the 1980s, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar led a bombing campaign against the government there partly to avoid being sent to the U.S. More recently, scores of Mexican drug traffickers have been forcibly extradited to the U.S.

Valdez, 37 years old, is the first major suspected Mexican drug lord captured alive since his former boss, Arturo Beltran Leyva, known as the “Boss of Bosses,” was killed in a gunbattle with Mexican marines in December. Ignacio Coronel, a leading figure in the Sinaloa Cartel, died in a gunfight with Mexican soldiers in July.

Since Valdez has worked with most of Mexico’s top drug barons, including the country’s most powerful trafficker, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, he could provide officials with valuable intelligence, analysts say.

Born and raised in the border city of Laredo, Texas, Valdez was a high-school football standout who went on to become one of Mexico’s most-wanted criminals.

Valdez’s deportation would raise the possibility that the alleged drug lord could cut a deal for a reduced sentence with U.S. authorities in exchange for information.

Speed is of the essence, as the Mexican prison system is notoriously dangerous and Valdez has a lot of enemies.

Two weeks ago, José Luis Carrizales, who like Valdez was an alleged enforcer for the Sinaloa cartel, was killed just hours after being transferred to the penitentiary in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, which is largely controlled by a rival drug gang known as the Zetas.

Controversy has swirled around Valdez since his arrest last week. He startled many Mexicans by smiling during his presentation to reporters in Mexico’s version of the “perp walk.” Many newspaper and TV commentators speculated that the smile suggested Valdez hadn’t been captured, as the government says, but voluntarily surrendered in exchange for a lighter sentence. Conflicting versions of Valdez’s capture have fed the controversy. Mexican media, basing their accounts on a police report, said Valdez was arrested after federal police pulled over his three-car convoy for speeding. According to this account, the police didn’t know who they had stopped until Valdez got out, identified himself and surrendered.

The official government version, sketchy on details, said Valdez was captured after his rural estate was surrounded by federal police in the culmination of a yearlong search.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the firm practice and write extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, Interpol Litigation, International Extradition and OFAC Litigation.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.

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