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Short Prison Terms of Freed Drug Lords Rile Colombians

Justice: Three members of cocaine cartel are at home after barely five years. Reforms may result.

September 21, 1996|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOGOTA, Colombia — Fabio Ochoa celebrated the return of his prodigal sons, three men once at the top of the late Pablo Escobar's notorious Medellin cocaine cartel, with the Colombian highland version of killing a fatted calf.

The 70-year-old patriarch proudly told a Colombian newsmagazine this summer that he would roast enough pigs for a gathering of 40 branches of the Ochoa family when the last of his three sons was released from a high-security prison near his ranch.

Now the welcome-home party is over, and Jorge Luis, Juan David and Fabio Jr. have paid their debts to society.

However, most Colombians were indignant to learn how little that debt was for men who helped run a cocaine empire that paid off politicians, judges and prosecutors--murdering those who would not take bribes--and then conducted a campaign of terrorism against extradition to the United States.

The first of the drug lords to voluntarily turn themselves in, the Ochoas are also the first to get out of prison, having served barely five years behind bars.

What angers Colombians most is that they are now free with most of their fortune intact.

"It is inconceivable that they go to jail and come out to peacefully enjoy their ill-gotten gains," said Col. Benjamin Nunez, who heads an elite police force in the city of Cali that is responsible for arresting drug traffickers.

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Controversy over the Ochoa case has given impetus to two new laws that will crack down on narcotics traffickers.

One lengthens the sentences in drug-related cases, and the other makes it easier for police to confiscate the property of suspected drug barons.

The more severe sentences will apply only to people arrested on drug charges after the law is passed. Provisions related to property will have a much longer reach: They could affect even the heirs of Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel who was killed in a gunfight with police three years ago.

"Colombian law has been below international standards as far as penalties for narcotics traffickers and the legal regime for confiscating their goods and property," Justice Minister Carlos Medellin said.

The problem arose in the late 1980s, when Colombia was desperate to persuade drug traffickers to turn themselves in because, as fugitives from justice, they were conducting a campaign of terror--bombings, assassinations and kidnappings.

At first, the government offered not to extradite to the United States any narcotics traffickers who surrendered. But that incentive was not enough.

The government then offered reduced sentences to drug traffickers who confessed and cooperated with police, in an adaptation of the plea bargains used in the United States.

But unlike the United States, Colombia did not have long maximum penalties. Once the maximum sentences of 24 years or fewer--depending on the charge--were reduced, traffickers such as the Ochoas ended up with five years in prison.

"This is an unfortunate case," Medellin said. "Law-abiding Colombians were shocked that the cartel bosses received such light sentences."

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At first, that shock was moderated by the relief that the cartel leaders were behind bars.

However, the realization of how little time was actually served hit home when the Ochoas were released this summer and went home to their ranches and fancy houses.

They claimed that much of their property was earned through their family's legitimate horse-breeding business.

Under current Colombian law, goods can be confiscated only if prosecutors can prove during a criminal trial that they were purchased with the proceeds of criminal activities.

Under that strict standard, the government has been forced to return most of the goods it has confiscated. For example, from 1989 to 1995, the government seized more than 400,000 acres of land from suspected drug dealers. About 270,000 acres of that have been returned.

When Escobar died, all criminal proceedings against him stopped.

As a result, his multibillion-dollar fortune passed directly to his heirs.

The proposed law separates the confiscation of property from the criminal trial of a suspect.

"The property is no longer dependent on the outcome of the trial," Medellin explained. "The property itself is stained because it was acquired with money from criminal activities."

Because laws already on the books prohibit purchasing property with the proceeds of drug trafficking, all goods bought in the past by narcotics dealers--even those who are dead, like Escobar, or released from prison, like the Ochoas--would be subject to the new administrative procedure.

"People have to understand that what has happened in Colombia is wrong and that there are consequences," Medellin said. "If the conclusion is that after all that has happened in recent years, at the end, it does not matter and the sentences are only five years long and so on, then we need to reexamine our ethical and moral structure.

"These new laws are a good reply, a way to say that what has happened in Colombia is serious."

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