Authorities here said they had arrested a major drug trafficking figure Wednesday, a pioneer in the multibillion-dollar cocaine trade reportedly wanted by U.S. authorities.
The man, Bernardo Londono Quintero, 40, was picked up in Barranquilla, a Caribbean port city often used for shipping cocaine to the United States. Police said they captured Londono Quintero in his daughter's luxury apartment, where they confiscated a .38-caliber revolver.
Nicknamed "the Diplomat," Londono Quintero is one of four reputed drug figures singled out among thousands of suspects detained in a Colombian crackdown that began last weekend.
According to Colombian newspapers, he has operated out of the cities of Bogota, Cali and Pereira and has been a major money launderer for other traffickers.
In the early 1980s Londono Quintero was listed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in Colombia as one of the "top 10" Colombian traffickers. But on Wednesday a U.S. Embassy spokesman said the DEA is refusing comment because of an "ongoing investigation."
The United States reportedly has a longstanding extradition request for Londono Quintero on file with Colombian authorities.
In Washington, the Bush Administration on Wednesday offered Colombia a $2-million program to help protect judges and court personnel from being attacked by terrorists affiliated with the country's notorious Medellin and Cali drug cartels.
"No nation's criminal justice system should be held hostage by a group of thugs and murderers," Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh said in a written statement announcing the U.S. offer. "The ruthless victimization of judges, prosecutors and police by drug cartels must be halted."
Under the new program, U.S. officials would try to help improve investigative and forensic abilities in Colombia and would determine what other help is needed for the country's court system. Last year Congress authorized $5 million under the Omnibus Drug Act to provide protection for Colombian judges, and this would be the first detailed program developed by the Bush Administration to spend some of the money.
The announcement of the program represented an attempt by the Administration to demonstrate that it is helping Colombia combat the narcotics cartels, but at the same time is heeding Latin American sensitivities about domination by the United States.
Colombia's justice minister, Monica de Greiff, said Wednesday that if the U.S. aid is to have any impact in the fight against the drug cartels it must come as soon as possible and without strings.
She pointed out that Colombia has received none of last year's promised $5 million in U.S. drug fighting funds. She attributed the delay to internal government wrangling here and to the slow pace of talks with U.S. Embassy officials on how the money would be spent.
Last Friday night the leading candidate in next year's presidential elections in Colombia, Sen. Luis Carlos Galan, was assassinated as he was approaching the speakers' platform at a political rally. Earlier Friday, the police chief in Antioquia province, Col. Waldemar Franklin Quintero, who had campaigned against cocaine traffickers, was killed by machine-gun fire.
At a news conference in Kennebunkport, Me., President Bush said Wednesday he was convinced that Colombian President Virgilio Barco Vargas "is determined to whip the problem" and that the United States could offer "technical assistance" to Colombia.
Speaking at an informal news conference at Walker's Point, his 11-acre compound on the rocky shores of the Atlantic Ocean, Bush reiterated earlier remarks by his aides that there is no plan to dispatch U.S. troops to Colombia.
"There would not be any unilateral action of this kind," he said.
Expressing support for Barco, with whom he spoke by telephone on Monday evening, Bush said, "It is a tough problem that he faces."
"I am convinced that he is determined to whip the problem, to beat it, and to free his country from the grip of the drug cartels," the President said.
Shortly after Galan's assassination, Barco imposed an emergency decree that effectively reinstated a suspended extradition treaty with the United States in a first step to begin ridding his country of the leaders of the Medellin cartel and other drug traffickers. The Colombian Supreme Court had ruled in 1987 that the extradition treaty between Colombia and the United States was invalid because of a legal technicality.
Under the new decree, Londono Quintero could be extradited within a few days. Meanwhile, a State Department spokesman said Wednesday that the U.S. Embassy in Bogota is filing "provisional arrest warrants" for 12 suspected drug traffickers in Colombia--the first step toward trying to have the 12 extradited for trial in the United States. On Tuesday, Thornburgh issued a "most wanted" list of traffickers that included the names of the 12.
"We are continuing to determine what other individuals, believed to be in Colombia, are fugitives from U.S. justice," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Besides Londono Quintero, three other persons identified as drug trafficking figures have already been captured in the current roundup.
Eduardo Martinez Romero, wanted in Atlanta on charges of laundering money in a $1-billion scheme, was arrested last weekend at an estate on Colombia's Caribbean coast. He is reputed to have been the money-laundering broker for the Medellin cartel.
U.S. authorities have begun preparing a request for Martinez's extradition. No charges against him are pending in Colombia.
On Tuesday, authorities announced the arrest in Barranquilla of alleged trafficker Alberto Orlandes Gamboa, known as "the Snail." Officials said Orlandes Gamboa would be extradited to the United States, but officials at the U.S. Embassy said DEA agents here knew of no U.S. charges against him.
Authorities on Wednesday also said Helena Beatriz Rodriguez, who is also reportedly wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges, had been arrested in Cartagena. U.S. Embassy officials said the DEA had no comment on Rodriguez.
Since Saturday, Colombian authorities have made hundreds of raids and seized properties worth millions of dollars in their drive against cocaine trafficking rings.
But a high Colombian official warned Wednesday that crackdowns on drug traffickers will be futile in the long run unless cocaine consumption is curbed in the United States and other developed countries.
Demand for Drugs Must End
The official, Communications Minister Carlos Lemos Simmonds, told reporters that no amount of enforcement in Colombia will stop the trafficking as long as demand for cocaine remains strong in developed countries.
"If Colombia were able some day to eradicate these traffickers, the business of drug consumption is so great that the same traffickers or others would establish themselves in other countries," Lemos said.
He said the United States and European countries must develop effective campaigns against the "plague" of cocaine consumption while cooperating in multinational efforts to stop drug trafficking.
At the Justice Department in Washington, spokesman Dan Eramian said Thornburgh discussed the new U.S. program to protect judicial personnel with Barco during a trip to Colombia last spring.
Thornburgh's executive assistant, Robert S. Ross Jr., solicited the views of the U.S. ambassador to Colombia on the program and was told it was "a good idea and a concrete show of support for Barco" at this critical time, Eramian said.
Under the program, qualified instructors--often retired FBI agents and police officers--are hired as consultants to train foreign security officers.
Meanwhile, there were reports in Colombia on Wednesday that some major drug traffickers have fled the country for Panama and Nicaragua. Boucher said the State Department has been unable to confirm these reports, but he made it clear that the United States is concerned that Panama is emerging as a haven for the drug cartels.
"(Panama strongman Gen. Manuel) Noriega has turned Panama into a major center for money laundering and transshipment of cocaine," the State Department spokesman said. "In addition, Noriega has provided material support, including weapons, to the drug bosses and their terrorist allies."
Long reported from Bogota and Mann reported from Washington. Times staff writers Ronald J. Ostrow, in Washington, Don A. Schanche, in Bogota, and James Gerstenzang, in Kennebunkport, also contributed to this story.