Conflict & Justice

Struggling to store drug evidence in Colombia

At a Bogota warehouse, you can find a Yamaha jet ski, a coffee table made with ivory elephant tusks, and rusted parts of an old submarine. The warehouse is stuffed with the belongings of accused drug traffickers. Over the years, the government has seized everything from condominiums and race horses to shoes and refrigerators.

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The confiscated assets are worth millions of dollars. The problem is that until suspected traffickers have their day in court, the assets cannot be touched, and because court cases can drag on for years, the seized goods keep piling up.

Most of the paintings, furniture, and kitchenware in the Bogota warehouse have been sitting here for more than a decade. They belonged to Elizabeth Montoya, a Cali cartel go-between who was killed in 1996.

Even though Montoya has been dead all these years, the court case continues, and that means the government must continue to store her belongings.

Juan Carlos Restrepo was recently put in charge of the government's National Narcotics Department or the DNE, which administers seized assets.

Restrepo says his agency has been overwhelmed by the sheer volume.

�It's a mess,� Restreopo said. �For some seized properties, there's no documentation.� He noted that in other cases, they have the relevant documents, but the property has disappeared.

Last week, police raided the DNE and seized computer files and other documents. Authorities found that some DNE employees had been doling out some of the seized goods to their friends.

�Many properties were stolen,� said German Vargas Lleras, Colombia's Interior Minister. He said that in some cases, DNE workers had doctored records so that seized assets wound up back in the hands of drug traffickers.

Juan Carlos Restrepo, who heads the DNE, said some people think stealing confiscated narco-goods is not a big deal. He said they justify it by thinking they are just �cheating the cheaters.�

For now, he has ordered a thorough housecleaning of the DNE.

The government's handling of seized property has not all been a disaster. A chain of drug stores that he seized from the Cali cartel in 2005 has grown under government management. And it has turned one of the country estates owned by the late drug lord Pablo Escobar into a museum.

However, problems will likely persist because the government is bound, by law, to impound nearly everything it finds during anti-drug raids. The current tally of seized properties, businesses and warehoused items is 76,000.

Much of it is junk. Among the items at the Bogota warehouse are a bird cage, a broken Christmas cr�che, and an old sign for a dry-cleaning store.

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