Accessibility links

Breaking News

Colombia Fights to Reclaim Drug 'Wealth' - 2002-05-07

For 25 years, Colombia has been a hot spot for illegal drug production. And Colombian authorities have, over the years, successfully caught many powerful drug lords. But the lavish farms, houses, and vehicles that drug lords have accumulated from their profits, have remained largely intact - a legacy of luxury that drug traffickers can pass on to their families. The Colombian government has established a system to try to seize this ill-gotten wealth, but critics call the results so far, "not very promising."

At the main office of Sports Daily, Colombia's only national sports newspaper, the financial staff is feverishly churning out the latest accounts. The paper has been fighting an uphill battle to keep the paper afloat these past two years, ever since that fateful day, when a squad of police officers swarmed the building. Laura Blanco, an executive secretary, remembers it with a shudder.

"It was terrible, terrible" she said. "They came barging in, all dressed in black, with their big guns and such stern faces. They told us not to move. And they started looking through all our files. And outside, all the media were waiting. Calling us, asking for statements. It made us feel guilty. But we hadn't done anything."

The employees hadn't. The owners of the paper, on the other hand, the Castro Vargas family, had just been charged with money laundering. The Sports Daily is one of more than 10,000 properties the Colombian government has seized from suspected or convicted drug traffickers in the past six years.

Historically, Colombia has never been good at taking the wealth away from drug traffickers. Observers point to the example of the Ochoa brothers, who were among the top traffickers in the infamous Medellin drug cartel.

In 1990, when police began to close in on them, the three brothers gave themselves up. But Colombian legal expert Eduardo Devis says through some smooth-talking negotiations they got soft prison terms, by giving up some of their properties. Mr. Devis adds that when the Ochoas got out, they had the remainder of their luxury empire waiting for them.

"They were put in jail for five years, in a jail with lots of commodities. Yes, very comfortable," he said. "And they came out from jail five years later and they are absolutely wealthy. They can go where ever they want. The police do not have anything against them. I think that's an example of something that shouldn't happen."

Cases like the Ochoas, critics say, have sent out the message to Colombians that drug trafficking is an excellent career option. Even when you are caught, you get to keep most of the spoils. The Colombian government is trying to change that. It created a new law six years ago, making it easier to confiscate traffickers' wealth.

Gabriel Marchant, head of a Colombian anti-narcotics agency, lists the properties that have been seized: more than 1,800 farms and 8000 urban proprieties, such as houses and offices. More than 5000 cars, 400 boats and 200 airplanes.

"The problem," said Mr. Marchant, "is the upkeep. Until a judge decides the case, the government has to pay all the bills, the mortgages, the taxes, on all these properties. And the process has turned out to be painfully slow. In six years, just five percent of the cases have been settled."

The government won most of the cases, but when it lost, it not only had to give back the properties, it had to pay for any wear and tear on them. Meanwhile the inventory of seized properties is growing out of control. Sergio Uribe, a drug trafficking analyst, says this process is unworkable, largely because of the Colombian courts.

"It cannot take six years! If they're going to tell us after a year, perfect, but do it," he said. "But if it takes six years and six judges looking after the case. And you see the processes in Colombia, they all have to be kept on paper! And every page has to be initialed by the defending lawyer, by the prosecution, by the judge...."

These cases are complex. It is not easy to prove a house or a plane was bought with drug money. The financial paper trail often leads out of Colombia and into U.S. and European banks. Right now, there are just 13 judges in Colombia with the training to listen to these cases. And those same judges have a heavy load of other cases, including murder, kidnapping and terrorism.

Not surprisingly, the judges often push the narcotics property cases back to the end of the line. Some critics argue if the Colombian government was really serious about taking the riches away from drug traffickers, they would designate special judges to handle just these cases. They say officials would also assign more investigators to pull the evidence together quickly.

But the critics are doubtful those changes in the judicial system will be made. They assert that drug traffickers have widespread influence in Colombia's political system and they know whom to pressure to make sure the reforms are never implemented.