Colombia has been extraditing criminals ever since the Turbay administration in the late 70s, when the war on drugs was just beginning. Marijuana got hold of Colombia in the beginning of the 70s, when Alfonso Lopez Michelsen was president, and the U.S. started its anti-drug crusade by giving assistance to the Colombian government. Lopez Michelsen’s successor, Cesar Turbay, signed the extradition treaty in 1979, which aimed to have drug dealers sent to be tried in the U.S.
Drugs were key to the U.S. security agenda and were considered to be an external threat. The solution was, therefore, to fight this scourge at the source, and in the mid-80s President Belisario Betancur succeeded in convincing the U.S. to combat not only production but also consumption. The drug problem accelerated in the 80s: marijuana was starting to be grown in the U.S. and was replaced in Colombia by cocaine, which at first was brought semi-processed from Bolivia and Peru. However, the extradition treaty was found unconstitutional in 1987, just as the problem was at its worst, and extraditions were only resumed after the new 1991 Constitution came into force.
Many argued that extradition was (and is) necessary because the Colombian judicial system is not strong enough to try drug dealers, let alone members of illegal armed groups, because many judges can be bribed or threatened. Actually, most members of illegal groups are tried in the US because of drug dealing and not because of their crimes against the Colombian people. But still, some say, this is better than impunity. Nevertheless, scholars have questioned extradition, pointing out that it doesn’t seem to be a deterrent, as trials in U.S. have not stemmed the flow of new drug dealers and members of illegal armed groups.
Now, Colombia’s extradition menu has been bolstered with two cases, which are potential diplomatic crises and have become the focus of international interest.
The first case is that of Yair Klein, an Israeli who trained Colombian paramilitary forces and who was captured in Moscow because of an Interpol request. Colombia is asking for his extradition, but the European Court on Human Rights blocked the process, and so it seems that Klein will be allowed to return to Israel. This raises two issues:
First, why is the international community intervening in the Colombian request for extradition? This is quite hypocritical because the same international community holds the Colombian government responsible for the violation of human rights. There is no coherence in this.
The court argued that the trial wasn’t fair and that if Klein were extradited to Colombia, he would be subject to torture. One argument was ex-Vice President Francisco Santos’ declaration about how Klein should rot in a Colombian jail. The ex-vice president’s action could be included in a book about the DOs and DON’Ts of Diplomacy and International Relations, in the DON’Ts section of course.
Second, Colombia is one of Israel’s main allies in the continent: The Colombian government supported Israel in several occasions in the U.N. and Israel has given Colombia a lot of technical and military assistance. The fact that an Israeli is behind the training of paramilitary forces is potentially a diplomatic crisis and it is not coherent with the Colombo-Israeli tight relation.
The second extradition in question is that of Walid Makled, a Venezuelan criminal who was captured in Cucuta this year. The Chavez administration is asking for his extradition in order to have him stand trial – but so is the U.S., on charges of drug dealing. This brings a terrible crossroads for Colombia: Where should the government send Makled? If he is sent to Venezuela, it will be a very good step in the improvement of bilateral relations, which is gaining ground in terms of border security and has already shown some results.
If he is sent to the U.S. then he is sure to be punished, while some may doubt that Venezuela’s judicial system is strong enough, just as the Colombian one is seen as weak. The other advantage would be that the long tradition of extradition to the U.S. would not be interrupted. Nevertheless, doing so could endanger relations with Venezuela.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that Makled is telling the authorities that he has links with the Venezuelan authorities. The Venezuelan version is that he is trying to save himself from being tried in his country by spreading lies and misinformation, and this will earn him a one-way ticket to the U.S. Accusations of drug dealing against the Venezuelan authorities are nothing new, and they have even extended to Bolivia, Nicaragua and Honduras (when Zelaya was in office). Some may argue that Venezuela wants him extradited in order to silence him.
Regardless of Klein being guilty or innocent and the veracity of Makled’s allegations, Colombia is in quite a situation: It is being denied an extradition, and will itself have to deny one to either the U.S. or Venezuela. Who will be served the hot plate on the menu? It may be too soon to tell and it is not an easy choice.
Although many say that extradition is not effective as a deterrent, it is still a diplomatic instrument, necessary for the well-being of international relations. The fact that a country would extradite a criminal wanted by another is proof of a healthy and friendly relationship, and it is coherent with the international system, showing that a state respects international law and is committed to building and strengthening the international society.
Perhaps we shall soon see Colombia signing extradition treaties with more states worldwide. As the illegal armed groups have links with many foreigners, the solution to their violence will also have to be framed in international terms. Only time will tell if the global community will respond with solidarity.
Santiago Sosa studies International Business at Universidad EAFIT in Medellin