BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- The surrender of Jorge Luis Ochoa, the second most powerful leader of the Medellin cocaine cartel and one of the most wanted criminals in the world, is a political victory for President Cesar Gaviria but will have little impact on drug trafficking, narcotics experts here said.
Colombia's leading daily newspaper, El Tiempo, Wednesday made public a taped statement by the number one cartel leader, Pablo Escobar, offering to turn himself in to Colombian authorities if his surrender could be negotiated with representatives of a recently elected assembly that is to begin rewriting the nation's constitution on Feb. 5.
Ochoa, 42, responded to the policy that President Gaviria launched on Sept. 5 of offering traffickers who surrendered, and confessed to a crime, reduced sentences and no extradition to the United States. Ochoa said he turned himself in Tuesday night near Medellin because he believed Gaviria's promise and because he was tired of living underground.
"This shows our policy is realistic and workable," said Justice Minister Jaime Giraldo. "This will benefit not only those who turned themselves in, but the whole country."
Giraldo said that if anyone who surrendered were caught directing drug activities from prison, he would lose the benefits of the decree. But national and foreign antidrug specialists said there was no indication that Ochoa's surrender meant his powerful trafficking organization was being dismantled, or even reducing operations.
"There is no indication he is leaving the business," said a European expert monitoring the process. "I do not think that overall we will see any significant drop in cocaine shipments. Where are his labs and the airplanes? Still out there, carrying on business as usual."
Ochoa was indicted in Miami in 1986 on charges of having peddled 58 tons of cocaine. He is a childhood friend of Escobar, and the two jointly pioneered large-scale cocaine shipments to the United States and Europe in the 1970s. Ochoa is wanted in Colombia for jumping bail in an earlier arrest. He has been linked to the 1984 murder of justice minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla.
A younger brother, Fabio Ochoa, turned himself in Dec. 18. The two are being held in separate cells in a new prison on the outskirts of Medellin. Authorities say the oldest brother, Juan David, is also arranging his surrender, leaving only Escobar of the main known leader of the cartel still actively on the run.
The Ochoas and Escobar are leaders of a group who call themselves "the Extraditables" because they are wanted in the United States. Their motto is "Better a tomb in Colombia than a prison cell in the United States."