Colombia Sends Drug Suspect to U.S. for Trial

Times Staff Writer

In the first test of Colombian President Virgilio Barco Vargas' decision to resume extradition of drug fugitives to the United States, reputed money launderer Eduardo Martinez Romero was flown from Bogota on Wednesday night bound for Atlanta to be arraigned on drug-related charges, U.S. law enforcement officials said.

After a scheduled refueling stop at a U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, Martinez was scheduled to be flown to Atlanta aboard a Drug Enforcement Administration plane to face arraignment this morning on money-laundering and cocaine conspiracy charges.

"I applaud the extraordinary courage and resolve of President Virgilio Barco and the government of Colombia in their effort to restore the rule of law in Colombia," Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh said in a statement. "He has the full support of the United States in his brave effort to curb the power of the narco-terrorists."

Meanwhile, in Colombia, the government Wednesday put a $250,000 price tag on the heads of the country's top two reputed cocaine cartel bosses, and two American journalists were injured in a bombing in the cocaine center of Medellin.

Thornburgh pledged that Martinez "will be afforded all the rights of criminal defendants provided in the Constitution of the United States," adding that he will be treated "fairly and humanely" by U.S. authorities.

In an effort to avoid further inflaming the escalating violence in Colombia, federal authorities planned to whisk Martinez in and out of a U.S. District Court in Atlanta with as little publicity as possible, one source said.

Martinez was arrested last month under an emergency decree issued by Barco cracking down on drug kingpins and their underlings in the wake of the Aug. 18 assassination of leading presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan.

Martinez had appealed the U.S. move to extradite him on money-laundering charges returned by a federal grand jury in Atlanta, but Colombian authorities upheld Barco's decree.

The grand jury indictment alleges that Martinez carried out money-laundering activities for the Medellin cartel and unwittingly led federal undercover agents to a related money-laundering ring in Los Angeles last March.

Barco's resumption of extradition marks the first time the Colombian government has turned over any of its citizens since the country's Supreme Court overturned a U.S.-Colombian extradition treaty in 1987, citing technical flaws in its enabling legislation.

Colombian drug lords have declared all-out war on the Colombian government in the wake of Barco's decree, vowing to kill 10 officials for every drug fugitive who is extradited. In statements signed "The Extraditables," the drug leaders have said they would rather die in Colombia than face trial in the United States.

Fear U.S. Justice

Thornburgh and other U.S. officials have confirmed that the drug kingpins fear extradition to the United States more than any other action the Colombian government could take against them.

Martinez will be arraigned under security precautions expected to be as tight as those surrounding the apprehension of Carlos Lehder, a major Colombian drug figure who was convicted in Florida in May, 1988. U.S. marshals allowed no photographs to be taken of Lehder until six weeks after his capture.

Martinez is the only fugitive sought by the United States to be apprehended so far under Barco's decree. "He was caught because he isn't all that important, compared to the real kingpins," one federal law enforcement official said.

But another source said it was "too soon to tell" about Martinez's significance in the Colombian drug hierarchy.

Last month, Thornburgh issued a list of a "dirty dozen" Colombian drug kingpins sought under U.S. charges, but none has been caught yet.

Thornburgh initially said that U.S. authorities did not know the whereabouts of any of the 12 kingpins, who include leaders of the Medellin and Cali cocaine cartels. But he later said there had been "sightings" of some of the wanted men.

Justice Department spokesman David Runkel declined Wednesday to elaborate on Thornburgh's comments.

In addition to the 12 kingpins, the United States is seeking as many as 80 other drug operatives believed to be in Colombia, Runkel said.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials in Colombia are providing security training for many of that nation's judges and are instructing Colombian agents to act as bodyguards for the judiciary.

In a prime-time television address Tuesday, President Bush hailed Barco's crackdown on drug figures and pledged full U.S. cooperation, supporting the Colombian president's plea to Americans to stop using drugs.

Colombia's Justice Ministry announced Wednesday on national TV that it is offering the $250,000 reward to anyone providing information leading to the arrest of either Pablo Escobar or Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, and showed "wanted" posters of the two. They are allegedly the leaders of the Medellin and Cali cocaine cartels, respectively.

In Medellin, reporter Bernadette Pardo, 35, and cameraman Carlos Corrales, 31, who work for the Miami-based Spanish-language station WLTV and for the Spanish-language network Univision, were wounded in the bombing Tuesday night of La Bella Epoca restaurant, police said. Both are U.S. citizens. Pardo suffered a broken collarbone and Corrales sustained slight wounds.

Also injured were Jorge Saenz, an independent Colombian reporter and documentary film maker, and his wife, Angela.

No one claimed responsibility for the blast, but drug terrorists are suspected.

Meanwhile, Colombian Communications Minister and acting Justice Minister Carlos Lemos Simondes said his country's cocaine cartels can be put out of business only by curbing demand for the drug in the United States.

DRUG FUNDING DECRIED

Mayors, police chiefs skeptical of Bush's plan. Page 15

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