One by one, the men accused of being the world’s most powerful drug traffickers have been tossed into jail as Colombia’s government dealt a series of stunning blows to the Cali drug cartel.
But the victory may turn out to be short-lived.
The jailed drug traffickers - five have been put behind bars in less than a month - are now poised to take advantage of a lenient sentencing system they themselves helped push through a Congress suspected of being corrupt.
U.S. officials have praised the Colombian government’s lightningquick strikes against the Cali cartel, undertaken with help from U.S. drug and intelligence agents.
Underscoring the importance Washington places on efforts to stem the flow of cocaine and heroin from Colombia into the United States, President Clinton congratulated President Ernesto Samper last week on his successes.
Thomas Constantine, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said punishment for the cartel’s leaders should be commensurate with their crimes.
“They destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives throughout the world with their drugs,” Constantine said in a recent interview in his office in suburban Washington. “They should get life terms.”
The Cali cartel, which earns more than $7 billion annually, is the first foreign criminal gang to dictate organized crime activities in the United States, he said.
He singled out Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, arrested in Cali on June 9, and his brother Miguel, who remains at large, as “the two biggest organized crime figures in modern history.”
But disappointment may be in store for those who believe punishment for drug kingpins will be severe. The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers face only a maximum of 24 years in prison, said Prosecutor General Alfonso Valdivieso.
“I want them all to get life in prison, but I must abide by the laws we have in place,” Valdivieso said from his heavily guarded office near downtown Bogota.
In addition to setting maximum prison terms, those laws allow for huge sentence reductions. U.S. officials are worried that jailed cartel leaders will get off easy. Although some of them are wanted in the United States, Colombia does not allow extradition of its citizens.