U.S., Colombia Aides Confer on Drug Fight

Times Staff Writers

Colombian Justice Minister Monica de Greiff, shielded by extraordinarily tight security because her country's cocaine barons have threatened to kill her, conferred with Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh and other American officials Monday about U.S.-Colombian cooperation to bring narcotics traffickers to trial in the United States.

De Greiff plunged into a full day of meetings with Justice Department and State Department legal experts despite persistent rumors that she plans to resign and seek refuge in the United States to escape the murderous hit men of the Medellin cartel. Justice Department officials said she would remain in the United States until Sept. 7 for further meetings.

The White House and the State Department said the 32-year-old Cabinet minister has no plans to quit. The Bogota newspaper El Tiempo, quoting informed sources in the Colombian capital, said she had drafted a letter of resignation but was persuaded to withdraw it and continue to lead the legal battle against the drug network.

"From everything we know, she hasn't resigned," one State Department official said. Another official added: "Here is a lady under tremendous pressure. Here she is doing her work."

But El Tiempo said it is still not known whether De Greiff will return from Washington when her official mission here is finished "or will stay indefinitely in the United States with the protection of the American Drug Enforcement Administration."

De Greiff was whisked into the Justice Department in an unmarked car that pulled into the building's underground garage. U.S. and Colombian officials refused to reveal where she is staying or to provide any information about her schedule until just before each meeting.

In Bogota on Monday, the Colombian army announced that it had arrested Abraham Majuat, a cartel financial brain, on a rural estate not far from Medellin where an airplane and three tons of cocaine were also seized.

The army added that Majuat is a so-called extraditable, meaning that he is wanted in the United States.

Pharmacies Seized

In another action, Colombian police seized 17 branches of a drugstore chain belonging to Gilberto Rodriquez Orjuela, a figure on Washington's list of 12 most-wanted cocaine traffickers. Rodriguez Orjuela is identified by authorities as one of the three top chieftains of the Cali cartel, the Medellin organization's smaller rival. The seized branches of the La Rebaja pharmacy chain are all in Monteria, a city about 300 miles north of Bogota, police said.

Meanwhile, President Bush summoned Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, CIA Director William H. Webster, drug czar William J. Bennett and Thornburgh to his vacation retreat in Kennebunkport, Me., for a meeting today on U.S. aid to Colombia and other parts of the Administration's anti-narcotics program.

White House spokesman Roman Popadiuk said the purpose of the meeting will be "a status review of the President's national strategy for drugs, how it works and will work."

But Administration officials in Washington said the crisis in Colombia has given a new urgency to the session and could help forge a consensus behind elements of the plan that call for a stepped-up U.S. military role in drug-producing nations throughout Latin America.

$300-Million Initiative

An initiative backed by Bennett calls for more than $300 million in new aid to Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and other nations where cocaine is produced. But the plan has been resisted by State and Defense Department officials who fear that their budgets would be reduced to make room for the drug-fighting aid.

Thornburgh, meanwhile, met for an hour with De Greiff and four other Colombian officials. They discussed President Virgilio Barco Vargas' emergency decree to extradite drug suspects wanted in the United States, a U.S. program intended to protect judges and other officials from retaliation by the narcotics cartels and the providing of equipment and training for Colombian law enforcement agencies, according to the Justice Department.

"The war on drugs is truly a matter of grave international concern," Thornburgh said after the session. "All law-abiding people must support the Colombian government's efforts to apprehend and incapacitate these criminals."

Barco issued his emergency extradition decree following the murder of Luis Carlos Galan, who had been considered the front-runner for the presidency in Colombia's next general election. The decree reinstated extradition procedures that had been struck down by the country's high court. However, some U.S. law enforcement officials have grumbled that the procedure outlined in the decree is needlessly complex and time-consuming.

Popadiuk dismissed suggestions the Colombians are dragging their feet. He said both countries are "nations of laws."

"Any legal proceedings to protect the rights of individuals can be time-consuming," Popadiuk said. "And we're doing everything properly, legally, to abide by the laws" of both nations.

De Greiff herself said last week: "There will be no extraditions in a matter of hours, because legal procedures must be observed to give guarantees so that the decision of the government cannot be challenged by the lawyers of the extraditable persons."

U.S. officials said no new programs beyond the $65-million emergency assistance plan were discussed Monday with the justice minister.

In another development, Barco broadcast an international appeal for help in fighting "a war we did not ask for" against the drug cartels. In a television broadcast from Bogota, Barco said Colombia cannot win the fight as long as cocaine users continue to make the traffic a profitable one.

"Those of you who depend on cocaine have created the largest, most vicious criminal enterprise the world has ever known," Barco said. "What might seem to be a matter of a purely personal habit has had explosive public consequences. Colombia's survival as the oldest democracy in Latin America is now at risk, but so is the safety of your streets. Enough is enough."

Barco praised Bush for the $65-million emergency aid package that the President announced Friday.

In addition to cartel financial expert Majuat, arrested Monday according to El Tiempo, authorities are holding these other figures, jailed since the blitz began 10 days ago: Eduardo Martinez Romero, described as the "finance minister" for the Medellin cartel, and Luis Fernando Galeano, right-hand man to billionaire cartel boss Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha.

Skyscraper Raid

On Monday, the Bogota newspaper La Prensa reported that army intelligence forces had raided a 7th-floor office belonging to Rodriguez Gacha in a sleek skyscraper in the capital's busy center.

Thirty computers and 10 facsimile machines found in the office were said to be part of Rodriguez Gacha's financial operations center, camouflaged as one of hundreds of legitimate business headquarters along Carrera Septima, a major thoroughfare in Bogota.

At the building, soldiers guarded the main lobby and questioned everyone coming in. The lieutenant in charge politely refused to let reporters visit the seventh floor and declined to confirm La Prensa's information.

"We have to investigate everything before we say anything, or someone might sue," the lieutenant said.

Meanwhile, the drug traffickers' death threats are taken more seriously than ever. Security measures at the U.S. Embassy have been intensified, and at Bogota's biggest hotel, police and intelligence agents have been posted around the entrances. On the 8th, 11th and 14th floors of the hotel, where foreign journalists are staying, plainclothes security guards are keeping watch 24 hours a day.

Many other businesses, especially banks, are taking extra precautions. On Sunday, bombs exploded at nine bank branches in Medellin, and five other bombs were defused before they went off.

Kempster reported from Washington and Long from Bogota. Times staff writers Robert L. Jackson and Douglas Jehl, both in Washington, contributed to this story.

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