For the first time in nine years, Colombia has extradited an alleged narcotics kingpin charged in the United States, marking what officials said was an important development in the international war on drugs.
Jaime Orlando Lara Nausa was loaded on a Drug Enforcement Administration airplane under heavy guard at dawn yesterday after Colombian President Andres Pastrana rejected last-minute legal motions filed by the alleged trafficker's lawyers.
If convicted on charges of heroin smuggling, Lara will face more punitive sentencing than in Colombia and an American-style incarceration that little resembles the comfortable accommodations typically afforded powerful drug dealers in Colombian prisons.
Lara's extradition shows that Colombia, despite bombings, protests and intense pressure from drug rings woven through the fabric of its society, will take serious action against its most feared drug organizations. Colombia had banned the extradition of its citizens in 1991 after the Medellin cartel's Pablo Escobar terrorized the South American country with kidnappings and murder to stop extradition.
Extradition was reestablished in 1997, but until yesterday none had taken place.
"Today's extradition . . . will send a powerful and helpful signal," Barry R. McCaffrey, the White House national drug control policy director, said in a statement. "President Pastrana is making a sincere effort to confront drug trafficking. Colombia faces a severe crisis, with coca cultivation doubling in three years and with the nation becoming a major heroin exporter to the U.S. President Pastrana must be commended for his courage and dedication demonstrated by today's action."
Colombian resolve in Lara's case will also likely be a boon to Operation Millennium, a massive U.S. and Colombian investigation that netted arrests of 31 suspected traffickers last month--including Colombians Alejandro Bernal, Fabio Ochoa and Orlando Sanchez-Cristancho.
At the time of the arrests, the DEA said this new generation of drug lords shipped far more cocaine to the United States than the much-vaunted Medellin and Cali cartels.
It took almost a year for Lara's extradition proceedings and appeals to travel through the Colombian legal system.
He was arrested in Bogota last year on heroin smuggling charges and a federal court in New York requested his extradition. About 50 alleged traffickers who could be shipped to U.S. soil for trial are awaiting the outcome of their cases in Colombia.