Minor Players Caught Up In Colombia's Drug War

There was a time when Colombia refused to extradite suspected drug traffickers to the U.S. These days, critics say Colombia is extraditing too many minor players in the drug trade. So minor that some have spent just a few months in a U.S. jail before being shipped back home. That's what happened to two banana vendors caught up in a drug investigation.

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Colombia is the world's biggest cocaine producer and there was a time when it refused to extradite suspected drug traffickers. These days, though, Colombia can't extradite enough. On any given week, it ships several drug suspects to face American justice. But critics say Colombia is extraditing too many minor players. Some spend just a few months in an American jail before being shipped back home. That's what happened to a father and his son, banana vendors, caught up in a drug investigation. NPR's Juan Forero has the story from Barranquilla, Colombia.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

JUAN FORERO: At the ramshackle farmer's market in this Caribbean coastal city, grizzled men play a dice game.

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And listen to sappy ballads from a battered radio. That's what Gabriel Consuela and his son, also named Gabriel, like to do after a hard day's work selling loads of bananas. But in 2005, counter drug agents arrived at their tiny home in a poor neighborhood and arrested them. A year later, the son was extradited to New York on drug charges. His father soon followed, and to this day still wonders why.

Mr. GABRIEL CONSUEGRA MARTINEZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: The older Consuegra says he's so poor he has no money, no land, no cattle. In other words, he says he never had any of trappings of a typical drug boss. U.S. officials accuse the Consuegras of belonging to a drug ring that exported to American cities. But the two men were only jailed for a few months in New York. The younger Consuegra said they were offered a deal under which they were allowed to simply go home in exchange for pleading guilty.

Mr. GABRIEL CONSUEGRA ARROYO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: He says had he not pleaded guilty, he might not be back in Colombia with his family. Myles Frechette wonders if these kinds of cases aren't counter-productive, costing American taxpayers big, but yielding few benefits. In the 1990s, he was the American ambassador in Colombia, and his job was to revive extradition.

Mr. MYLES FRECHETTE (Former American Ambassador to Colombia): I wonder really whether it is useful to extradite, try and convict - and in a few cases, I gather, not convict - small fish from Colombia in the United States.

FORERO: Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos says he's country is simply cooperating with American requests.

Vice President FRANCISCO SANTOS (Colombia): We extradite those that the international community asks for. We don't extradite anybody who's not asked for.

FORERO: In recent years, U.S. justice authorities have asked for more and more suspects. President Alvaro Uribe has readily complied, shipping off nearly 1,000 suspects to the United States in seven years. They include cartel leaders like Don Diego Montoya, whose extradition last year was big news on Colombian TV.

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Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Under Uribe, dozens of big-name traffickers have been shipped north, men like Gilberto Rodriquez, who ran the feared Cali cartel, and paramilitary warlords who used cocaine profits to terrorize. Anthony Barkow is former federal prosecutor who teaches at New York University. He says extradition is vital because of the transnational nature of cocaine trade.

Mr. ANTHONY BARKOW (Former Federal Prosecutor): Even though Colombia has a national interest in prosecuting some of these people, the United States has a national interest in dealing with the problem also, because it bears the costs, too. The United States has a strong interest in trying to do something about it.

FORERO: But some caught in the web claim they're anything but drug traffickers, like the Consuegras. Their court-appointed lawyer, Michael Young, recalled that the case seemed small, even by local standards.

Mr. MICHAEL YOUNG (Attorney): I'm thinking to myself, why are they bringing this guy up here? But even by domestic standards, this was a very small case to be in the federal courts.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

FORERO: Now 27 years old, Consuegra attends a bustling public university where he's finishing up a nursing degree. He says he hasn't forgotten what happened, but Consuegra says he's also put it behind him. He has a girlfriend, a baby girl and a bright future.

Mr. CONSUEGRA ARROYO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Consuegra says he now doesn't take anything for granted.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Barranquilla, Colombia.

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MONTAGNE: This MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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