Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Drug Suspect's Extradition Gives Colombia New Worry

Narcotics: Venezuela's transfer of reputed kingpin to U.S. is a slap at Bogota's justice system. And his testimony could bring down government officials.

May 25, 1997|STEVEN AMBRUS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BOGOTA, Colombia — As the man reputed to be the nation's last celebrity drug lord was turned over to U.S. authorities, Colombian officials humiliated by a slap at their justice system had a new worry Saturday: exactly what he might tell U.S. prosecutors.

The Venezuelan Supreme Court's decision last week to extradite Justo Pastor Perafan to the United States, rather than neighboring Colombia, was seen by observers as an indication of international agreement with the U.S. accusation that Colombia does not adequately punish its own narcotics offenders.

His extradition plays into an explosive national debate about whether Colombia should resume sending its citizens to the United States for trial in drug cases. Extradition was suspended six years ago, after drug lords waged a terrorist campaign against the procedure, killing hundreds of politicians, judges and reporters.

Perafan, who was flown to New York on Friday to stand trial, is believed to have check stubs, videotapes and photographs documenting years of payments to Colombian politicians, journalists and others that he could turn over to U.S. prosecutors.

"Perafan could incriminate more politicians and members of the government in exchange for a sentence reduction in the U.S.," Colombian political analyst Alejandro Reyes said.

Many experts believe that he could tell U.S. prosecutors the details of alleged narcotics-related donations to politicians that Colombian investigators have been trying to prove for years. So far, courts have convicted 10 legislators and a Cabinet member for receiving narcotics money.

Perafan has already brought down one politician. Defense Minister Gonzalo Mosquero was forced to resign in March, shortly after being appointed, after a decade-old check from the suspected narcotics baron was found among the contributions to his Senate campaign.

From outward appearances, Perafan is well-positioned to have information on narcotics corruption. He was the last free man among the colorful reputed drug lords who became national figures in Colombia during the 1980s; all others are either dead or in prison. Today's drug cartels are far more discreet, authorities said.

Known for his wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts, Perafan blazed a trail through high society, dating beauty queens, hosting celebrity parties and hobnobbing with prominent politicians.

Perafan's penchant for notoriety and beauty led to his downfall, authorities say. His lifestyle attracted the attention of anti-drug investigators, who followed a trail that they say led to a massive cocaine empire in Bogota and the southern state of Cauca, near the border with Ecuador.

The U.S. issued an arrest warrant for him on cocaine-trafficking charges in August 1995, and Colombia followed suit seven months later.

To elude police, authorities said, he moved to Venezuela, used a false name, grew a full beard, underwent plastic surgery to make his face more rounded and even had hair implants to change his appearance. But he apparently could not change his craving for celebrities.

*

Venezuelan police noticed that Luz Adriana Ruiz--a former Colombian beauty queen--had begun shuttling back and forth across the border about the same time Perafan disappeared. They followed her to the luxury estate near the Venezuelan border town of San Cristobal, where they arrested Perafan on April 17.

When both U.S. and Colombian authorities asked Venezuela to turn him over for trial, the government here was embarrassed as many prominent citizens agreed that the U.S. should be his destination.

"It would be better to take him to the United States," Colombian Police Chief Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano said in a radio broadcast last month. In Colombia, he explained, "judicial technicalities . . . allow these people to walk free again."

Former Justice Minister Enrique Parejo concurred. "I celebrate the decision to extradite Perafan to the country where he committed the crimes he is accused of."

Perafan is alleged to have smuggled 30 tons of cocaine into the United States.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|