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Colombian drug dealers take offer to avoid U.S. trial, but top kingpin holds out


BOGOTA, Colombia -- President Cesar Gaviria's policy of encouraging drug traffickers to surrender rather than face extradition to the United States has netted three top drug kingpins but has yet to snare the biggest one of all, Pablo Escobar.

Mr. Escobar's associates, Juan David and Jorge Luis, the so-called Ochoa clan of Fabio, have surrendered to authorities and will be tried in Colombia.

But Mr. Escobar, the reputed leader of the drug cartel in the city of Medellin, apparently is holding out the hope that he may benefit from action by a special assembly that is rewriting Colombia's constitution.

The assembly is considering several proposals that interest Mr. Escobar, including a constitutional ban on extradition -- instead of the current government decrees that ban it in exchange for surrendering in Colombia and confessing to a crime --and a parliamentary system of government for the country.

Mr. Escobar's overtures to the assembly came in a January letter from "The Extraditables," as the main drug traffickers call themselves, which asked for a special commission to hear the traffickers' position.

The letter made no mention of the recent government decrees but clearly indicated an interest in having trafficking regarded as a unique type of crime, sources in the assembly said.

If traffickers are not regarded as common criminals, they could be eligible for amnesty, similar to that granted politically motivated guerrilla groups.

"We feel the pressure of the traffickers, but we have been trying to ignore it," said a member of the special constituent body.

But the 70-member assembly, including lawyers, politicians, former guerrillas and Indian representatives, has insisted it will not act under pressure. And it has asked the traffickers to release Francisco Santos, editor of El Tiempo newspaper, and Maruja Pachon, head of the national film institute, who were kidnapped six months ago.

The traffickers have ignored the request, prompting speculation that the hostages won't be released until the assembly ends its sessions in July.

"It needs to be in the constitution so that no future government can bring it [extradition] back under such circumstances as a state of siege," said Juan Gomez Martinez, a newspaper editor and former mayor of Medellin, who introduced one of two proposals to ban extradition.

Mr. Gomez's proposals also asks that Colombia repatriate drug traffickers who were extradited to and convicted in the United States and allow them to serve their sentences in Colombia.

At least half the constituent assembly rejects extradition at some level.

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