Fugitive Drug Kingpin to Be Tried in Colombia : Justice: Trial in absentia could relax Bogota's tense relations with the United States over narcotics trade.

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Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, one of the world's most powerful drug lords, will be tried in absentia on cocaine trafficking charges this month in what officials are describing as a historic prosecution.

The trial before an anonymous judge of the 50-year-old fugitive kingpin will mark the first time that a high-level drug trafficker is prosecuted in Colombia for narcotics dealing, officials said.

Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar and many of his associates were tried on terrorism charges but not for drug trafficking.

"This case demonstrates the ability of Colombian justice to shape a case against drug kingpins who normally don't leave a trace of their crimes," Prosecutor General Alfonso Valdivieso said in an interview this week.

The Rodriguez trial comes at an especially tense time in relations between the United States and Colombia over the war on drugs.

It may be part of an effort by the Colombian government to stave off censure by the Clinton Administration when it reviews international drug-fighting efforts for an annual report to Congress on March 1.

The U.S. government, already upset over allegations that drug money was used to finance Colombian President Ernesto Samper's election last year, may choose to decertify Colombia, a move that would endanger international loans and could result in trade sanctions.

Washington has repeatedly blasted Colombia's failure to give tough sentences to drug traffickers and is likely to view the case as an acid test of Colombia's ability to mete out justice, analysts here say.

Rodriguez and his fugitive older brother, Gilberto, are Colombia's two most wanted drug barons.

The two brothers head the Cali cartel, a loose association of narcotics organizations believed by U.S. authorities to control an estimated 80% of the international cocaine market and a growing share of the world heroin market.

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Drug experts say that with global distribution networks and annual profit ranging from $2 billion to $6 billion, the Cali cartel is the leading drug organization in the world.

It was the Rodriguez pair that tried to funnel several million dollars into Samper's election campaign. Samper has denied accepting the money.

Rodriguez's trial culminates more than four years of investigation by U.S. and Colombian authorities.

Most of the evidence was gathered as a result of an undercover operation begun by the U.S. Customs Service in 1989 and involving a front company in Central America. The operation focused on efforts by the cartel to smuggle 330 pounds of cocaine into the United States via Costa Rica.

Using an informant, the customs agency was able to make contact with Rodriguez in Cali, seize the cocaine in Costa Rica and contribute to a string of indictments in the United States, Costa Rica and Colombia.

Rodriguez faces charges in the United States and Costa Rica as well but has never before been brought to trial in Colombia, prosecutors say. He could serve a 24-year sentence in Colombia if convicted.

Despite the fact that Rodriguez makes little effort to conceal his whereabouts, authorities have never captured him, largely as a result of corrupt police and little real will to go up against the powerful drug lord.

Trying him in absentia allows authorities to move into the courts quickly. But it remains to be seen if a conviction will be followed with actual detention.

Most traffickers here do not go on trial but instead negotiate light sentences on the basis of confessions and the providing of information that U.S. authorities say is often useless.

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Gilberto Rodriguez had attempted, unsuccessfully, to enter a similar plea bargain on other charges during negotiations with government prosecutors in 1993 and 1994.

Many drug cases of lower figures here have in the past been hampered by corruption, intimidation and assassinations of judges.

Since 1991, when Colombia introduced changes in its court system, machines that distort judges' voices and two-way mirrors have been used to protect judicial authorities.

The U.S. government, frustrated by meager results, suspended evidence-sharing with Colombia on new cases last March. The outcome of this case, observers say, could help renew cooperation between the two countries and strongly influence the course of U.S.-Colombian judicial relations in the future.

"A conviction of Miguel Rodriguez could ease the very tense relations with the United States and persuade other big 'capos' from the Cali cartel to turn themselves in and negotiate sentences before it is too late," said Rodrigo Losada, an expert on drug trafficking in Bogota.

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