US President Barack Obama signed into law an expansion of counter-narcotics prosecutors’ power that has alarmed Colombians who fear small coca growers could be extradited.
The law seeks the extradition of anyone involved in the production and trafficking of drugs to the US, which implicitly means coca farmers could be requested for extradition.
A spokesman for coca farmers in northeast Colombia told local media the expanded powers of US prosecutors is “absurd” and “very dangerous.”
“This act goes against the deals made [between the Colombian government and drug-trafficking FARC guerrillas] in Havana and sows doubt among thousands of Colombian families who have had to grow coca as the only alternative” to legal crops that are unable to timely reach consumption markets from remote areas.
But this is an over-reaction, said Adam Isaacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and an expert on foreign policy in regards to Colombia.
“The biggest impact of this law might be easing US extradition requests for armed-group leaders” rather than small participants, Isaacson, a Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy at WOLA, told Colombia Reports.
But the flap does illustrate some sensitivity surrounding the two countries’ differing approaches to narco-trafficking.
The enactment this week of the new Transnational Drug Trafficking Act of 2015 is an extension of the US war on drugs, even while worldwide momentum is shifting in favor of non-criminal approaches to narco-trafficking such as favored by Colombia.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, among many others, says it’s futile to continue the decades-old criminalization approach to narco-trafficking when it has so obviously failed to stop the trade.
Under old law, the US could seek extradition only of individuals who actually knew that the drug they made or distributed was headed for the US.
The new law makes it easier on prosecutors, by requiring them to show only that the individual had “reasonable cause to believe” the US was the ultimate destination.
The act’s sponsors ranged from liberal Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Cal.) to conservative Republican Charles Grassley (Iowa). They argue that the increased legal power is needed to combat the growth of intermediaries, especially in Mexico, who handle the transfer of Colombian cocaine into the US.
The senators say it was too easy for Colombians and other South American drug traffickers to avoid prosecution by claiming they didn’t know the drug was headed for the US.
But the new law alarmed some Colombians who saw it as opening the door to US pursuit of modest farmers. El Tiempo newspaper, for example, headlined one story: “US can ask for extradition of coca farmers.”
But even if the new law opens that theoretical possibility, it isn’t going to mean increased risk for small Colombian farmers, Isaacson told ColombiaReports. Doing so “would clog the US justice system,” he noted.
More likely, he said, it will make it easier for the US to go after big players. “If it’s no longer necessary to link them to specific US-bound shipments, but instead only to prove they’re producing/transshipping drugs, the list of FARC, ELN and BACRIM leaders (and maybe corrupt Colombian officials) wanted for extradition could grow.”
The new US law went without notice in US media. It was approved by both houses of Congress without dissenting vote.