The initial reaction of the Joe Biden administration to the president’s proposal Gustavo Petro to suspend the extradition of drug traffickers that they surrender to justice and promise not to reoffend was quite diplomatic and a bit ambiguous.
(In context: What does the US think of Gustavo Petro’s proposal on extradition?)
At a press conference at the Embassy of USA In Bogotá, Todd Robinson, Undersecretary of State for the Office of Counternarcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said that it was an issue that should be reviewed by the Department of Justice of his country, that extradition was a valuable tool in the fight against delinquency and that they will continue to dialogue.
(Read here: Gustavo Petro and his proposal on extradition: these are the challenges and scenarios)
Robinson, who was precisely in the country with the entire anti-narcotics leadership of the United States, including anti-drug czar Rahul Gupta, also said that there were no “tensions” with the new Colombian government, but the spirit of working together.
Drug traffickers know that as long as they remain in Colombia they retain some of their power. But they lose everything once they are extradited
However, it is obvious that this is a much more complex, and even explosive, issue that could complicate the bilateral relations between both countries.
For two fundamental reasons. The first is that The United States has always defended the independence of its judicial system and the clear separation of powers that exists between the courts and the Executive. In other words, if a Grand Jury issues an arrest warrant for extradition against a person facing drug charges in the United States, the government does not have the power to dismiss it.
As a diplomatic source in Washington told this newspaper, “no one has the power to legitimately nullify an elevated indictment.”
That is the main reason why the United States opposed the non-extradition guarantee offered by former President Álvaro Uribe to the paramilitaries, as part of the Justice and Peace process. In turn, to that same request for the members of the FARC that Juan Manuel Santos made in the framework of the negotiations with this guerrilla group, and that culminated in the 2016 peace agreement.
In both situations, the United States never lifted the extradition requests or the Interpol red notices against some of them.
In the case of the FARC, the position was even more telling.
The administration of Barack Obama, then in power, gambled everything for the peace negotiations to the point of appointing a special envoy, Bernie Aronson, to accompany the talks in Havana. Despite this, when the official request for extradition arrived, the answer was a resounding “no”.
This despite the fact that the issue had become an obstacle to the signing of an agreement that sought to end five decades of conflict, since the FARC leaders feared that in the future they could be sent to the United States, where they had drug charges.
A position repeated several times by Aronson: “The decision to extradite or not is one that corresponds to the Government of Colombia and we respect it. But we are not part of the agreements and our justice operates independently.”
In other words, Although the United States stopped insisting on them publicly to protect the agreements, they never disappeared.. And it is unlikely to happen now when the guarantee is being offered to pure criminals without a political agenda.
The second is that for Washington the threat of extradition remains a very useful piece in the arsenal with which it counts for the fight against drug trafficking. Although in Petro’s proposal this does not disappear -because whoever repeats or does not negotiate will be subject to it-, they do believe that it reduces teeth.
“Drug traffickers know that as long as they remain in Colombia they retain some of their power. But they lose everything once they are extradited,” says another source.
But beyond the official and unofficial position of the United States, President Petro’s announcement could have other serious implications. From the outset, it is anticipated that in Congress, especially among Republicans, it will not be well received. Just this Thursday, Senator Marco Rubio’s press office highlighted a statement he gave a month ago in which he said that any attempt to change our extradition agreement should be “strongly opposed.”
Senator Ted Cruz also spoke a few weeks ago of his intention to present a bill that would restrict aid to Colombia if the Petro government makes decisions that affect anti-narcotics efforts. And the non-extradition of capos could be considered in this category. Right now, given that Democrats control both houses of Congress, it is unlikely that these types of punishments will be approved for the country.
The decision to extradite or not is one that corresponds to the Government of Colombia and we respect it. But we are not part of the agreements and our justice operates independently
But if the Republicans regain control of the Legislative in November, something feasible, these types of sanctions would become viable.
Additionally, while President Biden’s administration has been open to exploring different alternatives in the fight against drugs, it does not have much political capital, and it will have less if the Democrats lose Congress. And in that sense, it is unlikely that he will use it to defend a proposal that in itself generates doubts.
“The extradition issue is likely to become one of the main sources of tension between Washington and Bogotá under the Petro government. For the Colombian president, the non-extradition of drug traffickers is a crucial measure to achieve total peace. But while the Biden administration and many Democrats in Congress are sympathetic to Petro’s overall goal, they are committed to the instrument and adamant on this issue. Republicans are more critical of Petro in general and extradition could become a rallying cry. Adhering to extradition is both a legal and political issue in the United States. This fundamental difference could strain relations and will be difficult to manage,” says Michael Shifter, former director of the Inter-American Dialogue and now a professor at Georgetown University.
In any case, this new development implies an arduous task for the ambassador Luis Gilberto Murillo, who will have to explain in Washington the scope and objectives of the controversial proposal.
SERGIO GOMEZ MASERI