From Extradition

Extradition: A Colombian Lesson for Mexico?

 

From my recent CNN.com opinion piece…

Gruesome accounts of violence in Mexico have obscured one notable bright spot in Latin America’s struggle with powerful drug gangs. In Colombia, once home to the world’s biggest cocaine cartels, new crime organizations are being picked apart with silent efficiency — aided by Bogota’s enthusiastic embrace of extradition.

In recent years, more than 1,300 of Colombia’s top crime bosses and their most dangerous enforcers have been sent north to face trafficking charges in the United States, a dramatic turnabout from the 1990s when extradition was outlawed under coercive pressure from the Medellin and Cali cartels.

The beauty of extradition is not its power to stop drug smuggling. There is scant evidence it has had much direct effect in that regard. But it continues to splinter the leadership of trafficking gangs, keeping them in a perpetual state of rebuilding. In short, extradition disorganizes organized crime.

SEE FULL STORY: CNN.com Opinion

Noriega: Lived by Bribe; Burned by Bribe

 

UPDATED: December 11, 2011 @ 8:44 p.m.

Former Panama dictator Manuel Noriega is home tonight after nearly 22 years in U.S. and French custody. But his view hasn’t changed much. Immediately upon landing in Panama City he was whisked off to another cell — this one at El Renacer prison — to start serving a term of up to 60 years for corruption and murder conspiracy convictions. The 77-year-old Noriega had petitioned French authorities to extradite him, saying he wanted to go home “to prove my innocence.”

If Noriega is allowed to reopen his case, one prominent Panamanian defense attorney he is unlikely to hire is Tulane-trained former ambassador Ricardo Bilonick. In many ways, Bilonick might seem a perfect choice. The two men were once friends and business associates. They both profited from drug trafficking. Bilonick did his own brief stint in a U.S. federal prison during the 1990s on trafficking charges. And today, back practicing law in Panama, Bilonick has represented other accused trafficking clients.

But what no doubt has soured their relationship was Bilonick’s 1992 testimony against Noriega in a Miami federal court — testimony that may have saved the U.S. Justice Department’s faltering drug case against the dictator. As highlighted in our August 12 post, that was testimony bought and paid for by the godfathers of Colombia’s Cali cocaine cartel.

Previously unpublished details of the long-secret transaction are described in the book: At the Devil’s Table — the Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel.

Excerpts from August 12 post with highlights from the book:

Remember, this was a criminal case that followed the U.S. military invasion of Panama in 1989. Noriega was seized and charged with drug violations — but the prosecution was no slam-dunk. New details from a cartel insider confirm that Colombian drug lords secretly helped unwitting Justice Department officials bolster their case.

Months before the politically sensitive trial opened in Miami, cartel bosses in Cali arranged for (Bilonick) to surrender and cooperate with the Americans, a stunning break at the time for the government case. But what U.S. officials didn’t know until years later was that their star witness only came forward after the drug cartel promised him $1.25 million.

It all started as an act of brotherly concern. Jose “Chepe” Santacruz Londono, one of the four Cali cartel godfathers, was desperate to help his recently imprisoned brother Lucho Santacruz Echeverri. Lucho faced a 23-year prison term after a trafficking conviction in Florida, and brother Chepe wanted to find a way to reduce that sentence.

Bilonick’s business interests took a hit when Noriega fell. He was broke and on the run. His defunct air cargo company had moved tons of Colombian cocaine through Panama and paid millions of dollars in protection money to the dictator. It was  obvious that U.S. authorities wanted Noriega more than they wanted Bilonick. But if the Panamanian attorney/businessman was going to testify against Noriega, he could help Chepe and his brother even as Bilonick helped himself.

A Cali cartel emissary advised Bilonick to surrender through a lawyer for the Colombian. That emissary, a cartel chief of security named Jorge Salcedo, said the gentlemen of Cali would be very grateful. Bilonick asked for $2 million. They eventually settled on $1.25 million, delivered in installments.

Salcedo first delivered a black leather briefcase stuffed with U.S. currency totaling $250,000. It was the cartel’s down payment. But the key to the deal was a $1 million in certificates of deposit that would not mature for several months. In the meantime, they were placed in a safe deposit box at the Banco Vizcaya where access required two keys – one held by Bilonick’s wife, the other by the cartel’s Salcedo. The certificates would remain locked in the vault unless or until the Cali bosses were satisfied with Bilonick’s performance on the witness stand.

Months later, Noriega was convicted. Lucho’s prison sentence was trimmed by nine years. Bilonick received a reduced sentence for cooperating. And Salcedo returned to Panama with his key. The now-matured million-dollar certificates of deposit were handed over to Bilonick’s wife.

Salcedo later turned against the Cali cartel and entered the U.S. witness protection program. Disclosure of his role in the Noriega case prompted a motion to reverse Noriega’s conviction. It was rejected. At the time, Bilonick called bribe allegations “idiotic.” He declined to be interviewed about Salcedo’s account. Bilonick has resumed a legal career in Panama. According to numerous published reports, his clients include an accused drug lord from Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.

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Cartel Drug Bosses Helped U.S. Convict Noriega

Recent reports out of France that former dictator Manuel Noriega is going home to Panama – as an extradited prisoner – come at a time when his U.S. drug trafficking conviction from 20 years ago is getting fresh attention.

Remember, this was a criminal case that followed the U.S. military invasion of Panama in 1989. Noriega was seized and charged with drug violations — but the prosecution was no slam-dunk. New details from a cartel insider confirm that Colombian drug lords secretly helped unwitting Justice Department officials bolster their case.

Months before the politically sensitive trial opened in Miami, cartel bosses in Cali arranged for one of the dictator’s former trafficking partners to surrender and cooperate with the Americans, a stunning break at the time for the government case.

But what U.S. officials didn’t know until years later was that their star witness only came forward after the drug cartel promised him $1.25 million.

An account of the covert transaction is disclosed in detail for the first time in the new book, “At the Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel.” These are some of the highlights:

Jose “Chepe” Santacruz Londono, one of the four Cali cartel godfathers, was desperate to help his recently imprisoned brother Lucho Santacruz Echeverri negotiate a reduced sentence. Lucho faced a 23-year prison term after a trafficking conviction in Florida.

Ricardo Bilonick was a financially strapped former trafficker in Panama City with long and lucrative ties to Noriega. His defunct air cargo company had moved tons of cocaine through Panama for Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel and paid millions of dollars in protection money to the dictator. Bilonick wanted his own plea deal, so he was already weighing how best to come forward.

A Cali emissary advised that every one would benefit if Bilonick surrendered through Lucho’s American legal defense team. That emissary, a cartel chief of security named Jorge Salcedo, said the gentlemen of Cali would be very grateful. Bilonick asked for $2 million.

Negotiations had begun.

But the cartel godfathers didn’t get to be billionaires making rash investments. For starters, they didn’t like the price tag. More importantly, they wanted assurances they would get their money’s worth.

Understandably, Bilonick wanted his money up front – before going into U.S. custody. His testimony against Noriega, however, would not be required until months later. Salcedo came up with the perfect solution for that occasion.

As detailed in “At the Devil’s Table,” Salcedo first delivered a black leather briefcase stuffed with U.S. currency totaling $250,000. It was the cartel’s down payment. But the key to the deal was a $1 million certificate of deposit that would not mature for several months. In the meantime, it was placed in a safe deposit box at the Banco Vizcaya where access required two keys – one held by Bilonick’s wife, the other by the cartel’s Salcedo.

The CD would remain in the locked vault unless or until the bosses were satisfied with Bilonick’s performance on the witness stand.

They were delighted.

Months later, Noriega was convicted. Lucho’s prison sentence was trimmed by nine years. Bilonick received a reduced sentence for cooperating. And Salcedo returned to Panama with his key to turn over a matured million-dollar CD to Bilonick’s wife.

Postscript: In 1995, Salcedo turned against the Cali cartel and entered the U.S. witness protection program. Disclosure of his role in the Noriega case prompted a motion to reverse Noriega’s conviction. It was rejected. At the time, Bilonick called bribe allegations “idiotic.” He declined to be interviewed about Salcedo’s account.