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U.S. attorney withdraws charges over Cali cartel

/ Source: The Associated Press

A U.S. federal attorney who accused the Cali drug cartel of bribing former President Ernesto Samper and dozens of congressmen to pass a favorable extradition law retracted his statement after Colombia threatened to stop turning over suspected traffickers to the United States.

Samper denied the allegations by U.S. Attorney Paul Perez, made in a March 9 court paper obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday. Still they caused an uproar in Colombia as officials questioned whether the United States remained committed to the 1997 treaty.

U.S. Ambassador William Wood held a late-night news conference to try to repair the damage, insisting the United States would comply with the extradition requirements from its key ally in Latin America.

'Confusion' cited
Wood, however, refused to explain why the document was shelved, saying only there had been a “confusion” and that he had just handed President Alvaro Uribe a revised version that omitted any mention of the accusations against Samper and the other politicians.

In a statement, Perez’s office confirmed a new document had been filed with the U.S. District Court in Tampa, Fla., but also gave no reason for the decision.

Perez’s statements about Samper came in a response to arguments from extradited cocaine kingpin Joaquin Mario Valencia Trujillo that evidence should not be allowed for crimes committed before December 1997.

Asked whether the United States believed Samper and the others were innocent of the charges, Wood said: “All I can say is that the withdrawal and revocation of this document carries its own message.”

“The new document does not have anything to say about the alleged bribery surrounding Congress’ 1997 decision to renew the extradition process,” he said.

Perez’s March 9 statement said Samper received $5 million in bribes from the Cali cartel to promote passage of the Colombian law that prohibits extraditions for crimes committed before December 1997. The Cali cartel controlled the world’s cocaine trafficking networks in the mid-1990s but went into decline after its leaders were arrested in 1995.

First public accusation
Perez’s comments marked the first time Samper had been publicly accused of receiving traffickers’ bribes during his 1994-98 term. He previously was accused of taking Cali cartel contributions during his election campaign.

“I reject in the most categorical and absolute manner the accusation presented ... by a prosecutor in Florida,” Samper said, reading a statement to The AP over the phone.

Perez dismissed Colombia’s extradition law — Article 35 of the Colombian Constitution — as “the product of the successful bribery of [then] Colombian President Ernesto Samper and the Colombian Congress by the Cali cartel to immunize them from extradition to the United States.”

Colombia’s ambassador to Washington, Luis Alfonso Moreno, demanded Perez explain himself.

“What the prosecutor has affirmed puts at risk the extradition treaty,” Moreno told local RCN Radio. “Prosecutor Perez has the obligation, if he has proof of a supposed bribe from the defunct Cali cartel, to present it to the Colombian government as quickly as possible.”

Uribe, who has sent more than 200 Colombians to face U.S. justice in the past two years, made no comment.

In the March 9 paper, Perez said U.S. prosecutors would show that Samper and the Colombian Congress were bribed.

“The government will present testimony that the Cali cartel, of which the defendant is and was a member, jointly collected $5 million to pay President Samper to support Article 35 and make it law,” Perez wrote. “Testimony will also establish that almost one-half of the entire Colombian Congress was similarly bribed by the Cali cartel to support the identical legislation.”

Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, the two brothers who led the Cali cartel, were recently extradited to Miami to face trial. U.S. prosecutors say the brothers continued to run their drug empire from behind bars after they were arrested in Colombia in 1995.

Colombian investigations have shown the Cali cartel contributed millions of dollars to Samper’s 1994 presidential campaign, although he claimed ignorance of the donations. The United States revoked Samper’s visa during his four-year term as president of a country that produces most of the world’s cocaine.