BOGOTA, COLOMBIA, NOV. 23 -- About 200 members of the Medellin cocaine cartel have offered to surrender to police if they are not extradited and do not have to confess to their crimes.
The traffickers' offer, made public Thursday night by President Cesar Gaviria, appears to be the culmination of several months of indirect negotiations between the government and the traffickers.
In a separate communique today, the traffickers, who call themselves "the Extraditables," declared a unilateral truce and said they would not attempt to disrupt elections for a constitutional assembly, scheduled for Dec. 9. The communique also said that nine journalists the traffickers are holding hostage would be freed if "our human rights and those of our families are respected."
The 70-seat assembly will begin meeting in February and will have unlimited power to rewrite the nation's constitution. The traffickers have publicly demanded that the assembly declare extradition unconstitutional and grant them an amnesty similar to pardons granted to political groups such as leftist guerrillas.
Since August 1989, the drug lords have waged a campaign of assassinations and kidnappings in an effort to force the government to back down on a pledge to extradite traffickers for trial in the United States.
Politicians across the political spectrum, including those who support extradition, say it is almost certain that extradition will be banned and that the real fight will be over whether the Extraditables are granted some sort of amnesty.
Government sources said it was not immediately clear whether Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin cartel and Colombia's most wanted fugitive, was among those offering to surrender, or whether the offer came from other members of his criminal organization, such as the Ochoa family.
"We calculate that between 200 and 300 people are willing to turn themselves into the courts," said a memorandum given by the Extraditables to a group of prominent citizens -- called "the Notables" -- who have mediated between the traffickers and the government. The group, made up of two ex-presidents, a leftist congressman and the Catholic cardinal of Bogota, presented the memorandum to Gaviria.
"This implies that the Extraditables who turn themselves in halt all activities related to drug trafficking and narco-terrorism . . . ending the crimes of homicide, kidnapping and others while at the same time ending the exportation of drugs and the turning over of laboratories and other assests used in the business," the memorandum read.
The traffickers dropped earlier demands that they be treated as a political organization. But because their situation differentiated them from common criminals, they said, they should be housed as a group in a separate prison.
The memorandum said those who turned themselves in could not be required testify against themselves because that violated the constitutional guarantee against self-incrimination. It also said there would be no need for those who surrendered to testify against their collaborators because they would all be turning themselves in.
In a written response to the Extraditables' memorandum, Justice Minister Jaime Giraldo Flores said a confession would be necessary to convict those who turned themselves in.
The government categorically denies it is negotiating with the Extraditables, but each side has modified its behavior based on the other's public statements, made in communiques sent to the news media.
In September, Gaviria announced that any trafficker who turned himself in and confessed his crimes would not be extradited for those crimes and could receive a reduced sentence. The trafficker could, however, be extradited for any crimes he failed to confess.
But the government later modified its position, saying that anyone who surrendered for any crime related to drug trafficking would not be extradited for any crime, whether the crime was confessed to or not.
The traffickers had repeatedly demanded that Col. Oscar Pelaez, director of the judicial police, be fired and that charges of police abuses be investigated by the government.
The government, in what it called "routine" moves, sent Pelaez to Washington this week as police attache and bought a building in Medellin that could be used as a jail.
"From what I can tell, the government is selling itself down the river," said one European expert. "They appear willing to give up everything in return for very little."
Former president Alfonso Lopez, one of the Notables, said in a radio interview that "the country has never been so close to peace" and that the traffickers' terms should be acceptable to the government.
Reuter reported from Bogota:
Gunmen fatally shot an opposition congressman and wounded his wife Friday in an ambush in a northern city, police sources said.
The National Liberation Army, a left-wing rebel group, later claimed responsibility for killing Juan Barragan Ruiz, a member of the Social Conservative Party, in a communique sent to local news organizations.
In the communique the leftist rebels accused Barragan of sponsoring private armies set up by landowners to fight guerrillas.