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U.S. Revokes Colombian Envoy's Visa

Diplomacy: Former prosecutor, once hailed as drug fighter, is accused of ties to narcotics traffickers. He denies the charges.

July 05, 1996|MARY BETH SHERIDAN and JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — In a reminder of how quickly heroes in the war against drugs can become villains, a former Colombian prosecutor once considered a drug-fighting champion confirmed Thursday that his U.S. visa has been revoked because he is accused of having ties to narcotics traffickers.

Gustavo de Greiff, known for his stand against Medellin cocaine cartel baron Pablo Escobar, was notified of the revocation last week by the U.S. Embassy here, he said. The visa was rescinded under a provision that denies entry into the United States to anyone believed to have assisted drug traffickers, according to a letter sent to De Greiff, who is Colombia's ambassador to Mexico.

Without specifically mentioning De Greiff--who denies any relationship with drug dealers--American officials have said that they planned to revoke the U.S. visas of senior officials unless Colombia cooperates more in anti-narcotics efforts.

That De Greiff should be among the first officials punished in that way indicates how radically opinions can change about who is on which side in the war against drugs. Like De Greiff, some Cabinet ministers now implicated in a scandal over the millions of dollars that narcotics traffickers allegedly contributed to the 1994 presidential campaign were once hailed as drug fighters.

The Colombian press openly speculates that Interior Minister Horacio Serpa, accused of plotting to cover up the scandal, is among those most likely to lose their visas. Serpa led the fight to remove Escobar's legislative immunity from prosecution after the late drug lord was elected to Congress.

In retrospect, many Colombians question whether the government's efforts to put Escobar out of business were really genuine.

"The pursuit of Pablo Escobar was done with support from the Cali cartel," said former Justice Minister Enrique Parejo--who was once shot in the face by drug traffickers seeking revenge. "Along the way, the government took on obligations to the Cali cartel, and De Greiff is involved in those commitments."

Just four years ago, De Greiff was the gutsy chief prosecutor who blew the whistle on Escobar. The drug lord had turned himself in to Colombian authorities but continued to run his narcotics empire from a luxuriously redecorated jail cell.

De Greiff found out and told then-President Cesar Gaviria, forcing him to act against Escobar. The jailbreak that followed and his unrelenting prosecution of those responsible made De Greiff look like one of the last honest public officials in Colombia.

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Yet many of those who offered kudos then have since become his harshest critics. Parejo is arguably the most vocal member of that group.

He formally demanded more than a year ago that a congressional committee investigate why De Greiff decided there was no merit to accusations that narcotics funds financed the presidential campaign. De Greiff's successor has found enough evidence in the case to put one Cabinet minister and eight members of Congress in jail.

"Then he accepted the Mexican ambassadorship as a reward," said Parejo. He said business dealings have been uncovered that show De Greiff was tied to the Cali cartel even before Escobar's prosecution.

Washington shares that view. A U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said the Americans are upset that De Greiff was a partner in an airline with Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela in the early 1980s before the businessman was accused of leading the Cali cartel.

De Greiff bristles at such accusations. "There is a very dirty war against me," he said during in interview at the Colombian Embassy here. "The U.S. government can have whatever opinion of me they want, except that I am dishonest or a friend or beneficiary of drug traffickers."

His lawyers are going to sue over the visa revocation in an attempt to clear his name, he said, although he does not want another visa. "I'm never going to return, ever, to the United States," he said.

He noted that although the airline never actually operated, the National Narcotics Council gave it clearance, knowing that members of the Rodriguez Orejuela family were partners. "I couldn't guess 20 years ago that they would be chiefs of the Cali cartel," he said.

De Greiff said the real reason the Americans are angry with him is that he advocates legalizing drugs as the way to stop the illegal trade.

"I studied and thought the best way to destroy this business is legalization," he said. "That's my opinion. Because of that, I am being crucified."

Sheridan reported from Mexico City and Darling from San Salvador.

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