U.S. Faces Criticism Over Extraditing Minor Colombian Drug-Trafficking Suspects

The United States extradited Gabriel Consuegra Martínez and son Gabriel Consuegra Arroyo to face drug charges. They were sent home soon after.
The United States extradited Gabriel Consuegra Martínez and son Gabriel Consuegra Arroyo to face drug charges. They were sent home soon after. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 31, 2009

BARRANQUILLA, Colombia -- In his seven years as president, Álvaro Uribe has complied with hundreds of U.S. extradition requests, furnishing the American justice system with cocaine kingpins like Gilberto the "Chess Player" Rodríguez, once head of the powerful Cali cartel, and "Don Diego" Montoya, who had his own private army.

Then there's the Consuegras -- a father and son known simply as "the banana vendors."

In June 2005, as the pace of extraditions was picking up, anti-drug agents arrived at the Consuegras' tiny home in a derelict barrio, and the two men, operators of a small banana-selling business, were extradited to New York. But unlike the Colombian drug suspects who are shipped north and receive long prison terms, the Consuegras spent just a few months in a city lockup, signed an affidavit admitting guilt as part of a plea deal and shortly thereafter were sent home.

The case left Michael Young, a court-appointed attorney for the younger Consuegra, wondering why U.S. officials went to the trouble and expense in the first place. "I'm thinking to myself, 'Why are they bringing this guy up here?' " Young said. "Even by domestic standards, this was a very, very small case to be in the federal courts."

Colombia extradites an average of four suspects to the United States each week, more than any other country. But in recent years, the extradition of small to mid-level trafficking suspects has become more the rule than the exception.

A range of critics -- defense lawyers, analysts and even a former American ambassador who once strongly advocated extradition here -- are questioning a policy that they say has gone beyond targeting drug kingpins to scooping up players on the periphery of the narcotics trade. They say the extradition is not only expensive for the U.S. government but also indirectly suggests that Colombia's justice system, despite improvements, cannot handle prosecuting complex drug-trafficking cases.

"It's really time to rethink what we're doing," said Myles Frechette, who as U.S. ambassador to Colombia in the mid-1990s was responsible for reviving a moribund extradition policy. "Extradition is extremely valuable, but we're wearing out our welcome, and we're spending too much time going after the small fry."

Justice Department officials in Washington declined to answer questions about the concerns Frechette and others have raised. But in a statement, Lanny A. Breuer, assistant attorney general for the department's criminal division, said Colombia had extradited "many of the most important cartel operatives." By cooperating closely, the United States and Colombia have "significantly decreased the ability of these cartels to operate," he said.

A high-ranking official in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, which has tried and convicted some of Colombia's biggest traffickers, said extradition is based on stringent requirements determined by a suspect's "significance to the international narcotics trade." Southern District investigations target the "most dangerous traffickers in the world," he said, but lower-level drug operatives are useful in providing information investigators need to build cases.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that if extradition did not exist, "we'd be severely hamstrung in our ability to stop narcotics trafficking."

But Joaquin Perez, a Miami lawyer who represents high-profile trafficking suspects facing charges in the United States, said U.S. authorities are casting such a wide net that small players -- chauffeurs, messengers and office workers for smugglers -- are being shipped north with the kingpins.

"You pick a good one to extradite, and you drag in four or five others who are absolute nobodies," Perez said. "Those are really not the people you should be extraditing."

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