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Oct 042005

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said more than 150 years ago. Good advice for people in Washington who have a penchant for declaring “war on” problems, like drugs or terrorism.

Once you’ve declared “war” on something, after all, you’ve promised an all-out effort behind a hard-line, no-compromise strategy. You’d better be prepared to fight that thing in all of its manifestations. If you don’t – if you fight some badguys, but, in the name of expediency, treat others with leniency or even kindness – the credibility of your “war” disappears. People will stop rallying to your cause, and you’ll be farther from achieving your crusade’s goals. By declaring war, you’ve locked yourself into a foolish consistency.

Two recent extradition-related examples in Latin America – one from the “war on terror,” one from the “war on drugs” – are stark reminders of how a “war” can be undermined when the foolish consistency it requires begins to break down.

Last week, a U.S. immigration judge in El Paso denied the extradition to Venezuela of Cuban exile extremist Luis Posada Carriles. Posada, who worked with the CIA in the 1960s and 1970s, escaped in 1985 from a Venezuelan jail, where he was serving a sentence for his role in the October 1976 bombing of a commercial Cuban airliner, an act of terrorism that killed 73 people.

When Posada suddenly showed up in Miami this year and was apprehended by U.S. authorities, it appeared that Venezuela had a strong case for his extradition. But relations with the Venezuelan government aren’t very good right now, and Posada is thought of rather fondly in some quarters of the south Florida exile community. So fondly, in fact, that two years ago, when Posada was being held in Panama, three Miami-area Republican congresspeople – Lincoln Díaz-Balart, Mario Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – wrote a letter to Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso asking for his pardon.

Maintaining a consistent, credible “war on terror” would have required these and other hardliners in Congress and the Bush administration to hold their noses and hand Posada over to the Chávez government. But they chose not to do this. They successfully convinced the Texas judge that Posada could not be extradited to Venezuela because of the likelihood that he would be tortured.

Never mind that the Chávez government – which justly faces some human-rights criticism – does not have a record of systematic torture. And never mind that, through its notorious policy of “extraordinary renditions,” the Bush administration has already sent several suspected terrorists to very likely torture in countries like Egypt, Morocco and Syria. “The long and short of it is that we are harboring a terrorist,” CIP’s Wayne Smith told Inter-Press Service last week. By refusing to extradite a terrorist who happened to hold pro-U.S. views, the administration has dealt a severe blow to the credibility of its “global war on terrorism.”

The other example, of course, is the blow to the “war on drugs” inflicted last week, when Colombia refused to honor an extradition request for paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo, or “Don Berna” – and U.S. drug warriors said… nothing.

Calling him the “de facto leader” of the AUC paramilitaries, a New York prosecutor indicted Don Berna last year on charges of shipping large quantities of cocaine to the United States. In late May 2005, after he apparently ordered the murder of a provincial legislator and was taken into Colombian government custody, the extradition request was formalized.

Last month, Colombia’s Supreme Court gave the green light to Berna’s extradition, forcing President Alvaro Uribe to decide whether to honor the request. Last week, Uribe decided to suspend the feared paramilitary chieftain’s extradition, as long as Don Berna continued to participate in negotiations with the Colombian government.

This sort of thing won’t do if you’re trying to maintain a consistent hard line in your “war on drugs.” The U.S. Embassy, apparently recognizing this, released a statement expressing its disappointment at Berna’s non-extradition. This required them to take the big step of releasing their tight embrace of President Uribe and distancing themselves publicly from him on something, for the first time in a while.

President Uribe ordered that Berna be sent from house arrest at his ranch to a maximum-security prison in Boyacá. The embassy released another statement praising the move, and the criticisms ceased.

While the embassy at least briefly raised its voice in favor of a consistent hard line, most other voices – including all of the architects of today’s drug war – have been strangely silent.

While we disagree with their strategy, we would expect them at least to be consistent about the prosecution of their “war.” So where is the outrage from Reps. Dan Burton, Mark Souder, John Mica and Henry Hyde? Why aren’t senators like Mike DeWine and Jeff Sessions howling about Colombia’s refusal to hand over a notorious drug trafficker? What does Drug Czar John Walters have to say? Where is the outcry from the Justice Department? Why the silence from the authors of the annual “certification” process, the people who denied Ernesto Samper a visa, the people who opposed President Pastrana’s attempts to negotiate with “narco-terrorists,” the people who thought it would be a good idea to cut off your college financial aid if you were ever caught with a nickel bag on your person? Where are the anguished cries from the people who were so incensed about the flow of drugs from Colombia that they have spent billions to spray herbicides on coca-growing peasants? Isn’t their silence an insult to the DEA agents and Colombian police who risk their lives every day trying to bring down drug kingpins like Don Berna?

In our view, extraditions – and other anti-drug goals – can be sacrificed on occasion for a larger good, such as the possibility of peace. (On the other hand, the threat of extradition – as we have seen – can also be a useful tool to keep the other side at the negotiating table. It’s a powerful bargaining chip.)

If Don Berna really demobilizes, ceases his violent and drug-trafficking activity, becomes a law-abiding citizen and encourages his followers to do the same (we’ll be amazed if this actually happens), then he should not be extradited. The same goes for Mono Jojoy and other FARC leaders wanted for drug trafficking, if negotiations with the guerrillas ever get that far.

That’s our position. But we’re not drug warriors. If America’s drug warriors agree with us in Don Berna’s case, then they have to explain themselves. They should say explicitly that they think, in this case, another goal – demobilization of the AUC – is worth sacrificing the anti-drug goal.

Doing so could be a big first step toward a more flexible approach to the drug problem, if it leads to a broader recognition that other policy goals are sometimes more important, and that the hardest-line solution is often not the best one. It would be a big move from a foolish consistency to a wise one.

That would be great, but for now the drug warriors are deafeningly silent. Until they explain why they’re not howling about the extradition of a drug lord who happens to be a right winger, their position is inconsistent, their credibility suffers, and their “war on drugs” is in tatters.

2 Responses to “Don Berna and the drug war”

  1. jcg Says:

    And in the meanwhile, it seems like the rest of the AUC commanders themselves aren’t reacting too positively to “Don Berna”’s being transferred to Combita, Boyacá, if press reports and their own website are to be believed.

    Whether they are just posturing or actually enraged, or a bit of both, is still up in the air.

  2. Randy Paul Says:


    Great post!

    Thought you might find this perspective on Don Berna interesting.

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