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."
Twenty years ago, when two powerful cartels controlled most of the cocaine trade, U.S. authorities targeted only the cartel leadership. Those bosses so feared being extradited that they unleashed a wave of terror that hammered the Colombian government. Colombia's 1991 constitution prohibited extradition, and only intense U.S. pressure pushed the government to lift the ban in 1997.
But it was not until after Uribe was elected in 2002 that Colombian authorities began diligently complying with U.S. extradition requests. Under Uribe, whose administration has received $6 billion in U.S. aid, Colombia has extradited more than 900 people. The U.S. Embassy in Bogota, citing Justice Department figures, said the vast majority have been convicted, have pleaded guilty or are being prosecuted.
Extradition, to be sure, has removed some of Colombia's most violent and powerful drug bosses, including Luis Hernando Gómez, whose Norte del Valle cartel was responsible for shipping $10 billion in cocaine to the United States.
Colombian officials characterize extradition as just one component of a multinational effort to combat drug-trafficking.
"This is a policy of everybody doing what it has to do, in a concerted way, to defeat organizations that are international by essence," Vice President Francisco Santos said in an interview. Told about criticism that too many minor drug players are being extradited, Santos said, "We extradite those that the international community asks for."
But defense lawyers and analysts of the drug war say that for every Diego Fernando Murillo, a paramilitary warlord recently sentenced to 31 years in prison in New York, there might be dozens of people like the Consuegras.
In 2005, Gabriel Consuegra Arroyo was a 24-year-old nursing student at Barranquilla's Metropolitan University. He and his father, Gabriel Consuegra Martínez, then 57, a former field worker, sold bananas in a ramshackle outdoor market.
In an interview at their home, the two recalled how Juan Vicente Gómez, a friend of the elder Consuegra, often called to buy bananas. Colombian and U.S. authorities said in court documents that wiretaps showed that the men used code words culled from the banana business to hide their real intent: sealing cocaine deals and laundering drug profits.
"He would say, 'Give me 150 bananas and make sure they're green,' " the younger Consuegra said, recalling conversations with Gómez. "Well, a judge later told me that 'green' meant money."
One morning before dawn, more than a dozen heavily armed counter-drug agents, including Americans, arrived at the Consuegras' home and arrested them. The two men were shipped to the frigid Combita prison, 8,000 feet above sea level and a warehouse for trafficking suspects indicted by U.S. courts.
Fourteen months later, in August 2006, the younger Consuegra was extradited to New York. His father arrived soon after. Gómez, accused of being a leader in a trafficking ring, and several others were extradited.
In August 2007, the prosecutor in the case offered the younger Consuegra a deal: plead guilty and win release a few weeks later, the punishment being time served, recalled Young, his attorney.
"I'd already been in prison for two years," the younger Consuegra said, insisting they were innocent. "I was desperate. I wanted to see my family. And my lawyer told me, 'If you're found guilty, you'll get 20 years.' "
The younger Consuegra pleaded guilty, as did his father.
The high-ranking official with the Southern District said he was not familiar with the specifics of the case but noted that the men "did plead guilty."
The Consuegras flew home in December 2007. The elder Consuegra is back at work as a vendor. His son, who now has a girlfriend and an infant daughter, has resumed work on his nursing degree.
"I still ask myself, 'Why did this happen?' " the son said. "I think this is something that will mark us for the rest of our lives."
By Juan Forero
July 31, 2009