Although Colombia is declaring victory in this week's surrender of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, the event is actually a humiliating defeat for law and order in that country. Terrorism has paid off.
The 41-year-old Escobar, the head of the murderous Medellin drug cartel, had been in hiding for several years but gave up after the government promised leniency for his drug-related crimes and an elected assembly rewrote Colombia's constitution to outlaw the extradition of Colombians to stand trial abroad.The threat of extradition to the United States for drug crimes has been the most potent weapon in the hands of Colombian officials. Enormously wealthy and powerful drug barons - who have intimidated or bribed many government officials and killed dozens of judges - have little to fear from Colombia's laws.
Incredible as it may seem, until the leniency program offered by Colombia in recent weeks, no major Colombian drug trafficker had been successfully convicted and served prison time in that country. But 49 of them have been extradited to the United States and are serving lengthy prison terms, in some cases, life sentences.
In an effort to get rid of the extradition law, drug cartels - calling themselves "The Extraditables" - launched a murderous war against the Colombian government two years ago, engaging in bombings and assassinations that demoralized much of the country.
Even the elected assembly that wiped out the extradition law was subject to threats. In April, pro-extradition delegates got copies of a letter listing the many officials who had been murdered for favoring the practice. The letters said, "You have joined our list of honor."
Escobar, who faced eight indictments in the United States, has crushed anyone who got in his way. He was wanted in Colombia for the assassinations of a justice minister, an attorney general, a newspaper publisher, and three presidential candidates. Those are just some of his better-known slayings.
The drug cartel is blamed in the blowing up of a domestic jetliner, killing 107 people, and in the murder of 300 Medellin police last year, an incredible 10 percent of the city's police force.
Yet this is someone to whom the Colombian government is offering leniency. The coddling of Escobar does not indicate any desire to vigorously prosecute and punish a murderous thug.
Pending trial, Escobar has been sent to a luxurious, specially constructed ranch style "jail" in his hometown. It features roomy "cells," private baths, gardens, a soccer field and many other amenities. Escobar also demanded - and got - a guarantee that security around the prison would be provided by the army, rather than anti-drug police.
Apparently this would make it easier for billionaire Escobar to run his drug empire from within the jail. Three of Escobar's associates, who surrendered under the leniency program several months ago, have continued to supervise drug operations from behind bars without any problem. Inside his loosely guarded country club jail, Escobar is not likely to have any difficulty, either. Small wonder that he and others in the drug cartel have been so willing to surrender.
No matter how good a face Colombian officials try to put on their actions, this is a sad time. The leniency program and the outlawing of extradition amount to a shameful abdication to wealthy criminal forces.