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World Perspective | DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

End to Extradition Ban to Put Criminals Within Law's Reach

July 24, 1998|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — Since a federal grand jury indicted them here more than a year ago on charges of laundering millions of dollars in drug money for a Miami-based cocaine baron, Edmon Elias and Ricardo Hernandez have lived free and easy--far beyond the reach of U.S. law--in their native Dominican Republic.

Elias has continued to manage his many popular casinos, and Hernandez, the owner of one of the nation's most popular baseball teams, has remained a fixture among the business elite in the northern city of Santiago.

But now the two prominent fugitives and 30 other Dominicans wanted in the United States on charges ranging from drug conspiracy and kidnapping to murder could face U.S. courts.

Within two weeks, President Leonel Fernandez is expected to sign legislation recently passed by the Dominican Republic's newly elected legislature that, in effect, abolishes a 29-year-old law that has barred the extradition of its citizens and transformed the Caribbean nation into one of the world's major havens for fugitives from U.S. law.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says drug smugglers and money launderers are using the Dominican Republic as one of their key transshipment points for U.S.-bound cocaine. Dominican analysts, lawmakers and U.S. officials said the legislation is a strong sign that the country's institutions and society are hardening against the booming drug trade.

In overriding the country's long-standing extradition policy, they said, the Dominican lawmakers turned back decades of nationalism and acknowledged that the drug threat has eclipsed old notions of sovereignty.

Pelegrin Castillo, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, called the legislation a powerful signal to all Dominican criminals.

"The law reflects a new concept of nationalism within our Congress and our society, a realization that international organized crime, like the drug trade, is the gravest threat to all nations' sovereignty," Castillo said in a telephone interview this week.

With the sole exception of the nation's human rights commission, not a single voice has been raised against the extradition law.

"I think this law represents a recognition by our society that drug trafficking is, in fact, a real problem for us and that extradition is one of the most effective methods of combating it," said Anibal de Castro, a prominent political analyst and magazine publisher in Santo Domingo, the capital.

Most analysts and legislators say the law also reflects a new awareness among Dominicans that the victims in many of the pending extradition cases were themselves Dominican, members of an immigrant community in the U.S. that numbers more than 1 million.

"To have the authority to ask the American government to protect our citizens living there, we have to collaborate with them over here," legislator Castillo said. "This extradition law is a very important way of doing that and bringing to justice those who have victimized Dominicans abroad in the past."

Even before the extradition vote, Dominican authorities had already aided the U.S. last month in the case against Elias and Hernandez.

After more than a year of legal wrangling, the Dominican government finally turned over to U.S. agents three luxury aircraft worth about $2 million. In 1997, a federal judge in Miami had ordered the aircraft seized and returned to the U.S. as the proceeds of drug money.

The key figure in that case, Mexican American drug lord Luis Cano, was convicted by a federal jury in Miami in January. He faced charges that he headed a massive conspiracy that imported tons of Colombian cocaine into U.S. cities from Los Angeles to New York between 1987 and 1996 and "washed" tens of millions of dollars in drug profits through Elias' casinos, Hernandez's baseball team and real estate here and abroad.

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