The difficulty of extraditing Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, accused of helping smuggle tons of cocaine to the United States, has drawn attention to a justice system that criminals think is just fine.
When a judge quashed an extradition request in January, the U.S. Embassy withdrew the judge’s visa. That led to sharp words and doubts about whether future extradition requests would fare any better.
The embassy accused Judge Oscar Lopez Lemus of helping narcotics traffickers in Guatemala.
Lopez responded: “The embassy of the United States has defamed me, accusing me of aiding drug trafficking, and that is absolutely false and slanderous. For that reason, I plan to bring charges immediately against them.”
Vargas, known as “Archie” in Colombian cocaine circles, was indicted on eight counts in 1990 by a federal grand jury in New York.
U.S. authorities accused Vargas, the former mayor of Zacapa, of allowing midnight landings by traffickers at a dirt airstrip on his ranch. He allegedly received $50,000 each time he guided a cocaine-laden plane down with flashlights.
The arrest of Vargas and two others Dec. 27, 1990, led to the largest seizure of cocaine in Guatemalan history, about 4,000 pounds. The seizure is cited as evidence that Guatemala has become a favorite way station for cocaine bound from South America to the United States.
Armed with tapes of Vargas’ phone conversations, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Guatemala’s attorney general thought they had Vargas nailed.
Lopez ruled, however, that the evidence was insufficient and the U.S. extradition request was faulty. He said the request did not include the embassy seal, which is required by Guatemalan law but not by the extradition treaty.
“In Guatemala, we don’t have the ability to investigate and prosecute,” said Antonio Arenales Forno, an adviser to the Foreign Ministry. “The criminal process here is 200 years old, but the new penal code would overhaul the justice system in two years.”
The code, expected to be approved soon, would pattern Guatemala’s judicial process after that of the United States.
Atty. Gen. Acisclo Valladares appealed the decision to block Vargas’ extradition and filed criminal charges against Judge Lopez for delaying the case. Lopez has been suspended.
Embassy lawyers say they expect to win the appeal because the same court ruled last year in favor of extraditing the two associates arrested with Vargas.
Both associates have filed constitutional injunctions, allegations that it violated the constitution, against the court, meaning that their cases could continue for months.
If Vargas loses, he can file as many injunctions as he wishes, which would send the case to the Supreme Court.
Congress replaces the Supreme Court every six years, and a new one took office in February. Six of the nine justices are members of the Union of the National Center political party, as is Vargas, and many are from Zacapa or the surrounding area.
Vargas “was waiting until his friends would be judges and could hear his case,” said a lawyer involved in the case. The lawyer would not let his name be used for fear that he would be killed by someone close to Vargas.
The new court has said it will begin criminal proceedings against Lopez for mishandling the Vargas case.
This is not Washington’s first trouble with Guatemalan justice. The embassy filed a constitutional injunction against the Supreme Court late last year after an unsuccessful request for the extradition of a person indicted for murder in California.
Only one alleged drug trafficker has been extradited to the United States, and that took more than two years. Two cases besides Vargas are pending.