Sunday, March 01, 2009

Former Colombian drug cartel prosecutor is inspiration for Valley lawmaker's bill

Former Colombian drug cartel prosecutor is inspiration for Valley lawmaker's bill

By Steve Taylor

AUSTIN, February 28 - State Rep. Aaron Peña says a chance meeting with a former Colombian drug cartel prosecutor now living in Houston has provided the inspiration for his most important piece of legislation this session.

The Edinburg Democrat introduced the Texas Racketeering and Corruption Act (TexRAC), otherwise known as HB 1618, at a news conference at the Capitol last Monday. It gives the attorney general's office the power to seize assets and profits from individuals and organizations involved in serious criminal activity.

While on a legislative trip to Houston a few weeks ago, Peña met Colombia’s Consul General in Houston, Maria Cristina Chirolla. Previously, Chirolla worked as chief of anti-drug and anti-crime operations in Colombia and was part of the team that helped bring down Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s biggest ever cocaine drug lord. Her pioneering work has been recognized in a PBS documentary titled, An Honest Citizen.

“Maria Cristina Chirolla is an inspiration, a real heroine. She was so committed to fighting the drug cartels in Colombia that she had to have multiple body guards around here. She carries protection with her to this day,” Peña said.

Peña lost his eldest son to drugs. The tragedy spurred him to run for elected office and to carry legislation to help fight drug abuse. He was elected a state representative in 2003 and achieved his top legislative goal with the passage of a bill to build a drug treatment center to the Rio Grande Valley.

As chair of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in 2005 and 2007 Peña tackled human trafficking and produced an interim report on how to combat the sex slave trade. The report provided the groundwork for HB 1618. “Of all the bills I will carry this session, this is the biggest. We are looking at a whole other way of tackling the issue.” Peña said.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sens. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, are collaborating Peña with his bill.

“In South Texas alone we have witnessed first hand drug, firearms, and human trafficking. This legislation will give the Attorney General a new tool to punish those that engage in the most serious organized crime by hitting them where it hurts, their assets,” Peña said.

Peña said that although HB 1618 was well on the way to being crafted when he met Chirolla, the chance meeting has given him fresh impetus to make sure the legislation becomes law.

The two met at a dinner hosted by the Houston Partnership. After learning who she was and the courageous stand she has taken in her life, Peña asked Chirolla if they could sit and discuss the war on drugs.

“We found a quiet corner and spent hours talking about her experience in Colombia in dealing with the drug cartels and how we could apply her knowledge to Mexico's growing drug violence,” Peña said.

“It was a fascinating discussion that stretched from specifics in dealing with the growing cartels to transcendental religious issues. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to continue the discussion. It was a very productive evening.”

Peña expanded on Chirolla’s analysis of dealing with the drug cartels.

“She told me we have to begin to change our mindset. She said we must not look at the drugs issue as a criminal activity, but as a public health and public safety issue. We have to go about undermining the cartels in the right way. We can lop off the head of a cartel but another one pops up,” he said.

“We cannot say it is not my problem, it is somebody else’s. We have to have a holistic approach because it affects the whole community. It not only affects the users and those directly affected but the whole of society. It begins to undermine our values and then eventually the country falls apart.”

Peña said he came away from his discussions with Chirolla more enlightened and determined.

“You never give up and you see it in a holistic way. You take away the assets. It seems a coincidence that she and I were on the same track but I believe we were meant to meet up. I believe we were called to be there at the same time. Nothing is a coincidence,” Peña said.

“This is a public health and public safety problem developing in the U.S. that reminds her (Chirolla) of Colombia in its early stages of dealing with the drug cartels. We had better confront it now before it becomes catastrophic.”

Living on the border, Peña said he sees signs of a looming catastrophe. He pointed to reports showing that gangs and other criminal organizations on the U.S. side of the border are linked to the Mexican cartels that traffic drugs, weapons and human beings.

“Home invasions, corruption in our sheriff’s departments… there is no doubt that the cartels’ money, the corruption, is beginning to infiltrate into our community. We have had individual assassinations. I believe that if we do not address it now it will get larger and larger.”

Peña said his new bill will allow the attorney general to bring suit against any person, enterprise or organization for racketeering. A suit brought under the charge of racketeering could include offenses of homicide, kidnapping, human, firearms and drug trafficking, money laundering, robbery, theft, fraud and other serious crimes.

“This landmark legislation would give the state an opportunity to dismantle violent gangs and organized criminal activity similar to the powerful, mafia-busting federal RICO Act,” Peña said. “We can inflict some heavy damage to these gangs and cartels by not only jailing these individuals but by bankrupting their criminal enterprises.”

Landmark may be a good description of the bill because if utilized to the full it could create a huge dent in the economy of some border communities.

Peña pointed out that most of the arms used by the Mexican cartels come from the U.S. He said his bill can help address that. “The attorney general can go after this product. If organized crime or the gangs on this side of the border have the assets, the attorney general can sue them, convert the items into money and use it to continue the fight against corruption. The weapons can either be resold for legitimate purposes or dismantled.”

Abbott said he appreciates the tools he will be given under TexRAC.

“TexRAC adds a valuable new weapon to the state’s battle against an increasingly dangerous organized crime industry,” Abbott said. “By giving the Office of the Attorney General expanded authority to seize crime syndicates' property and illegal proceeds, TexRAC will help the State cut off the lucrative profits that fuel these illegal enterprises.”

As well as steering his TexRAC legislation through the House, Peña said he will likely have another related piece of work to accomplish this session. “I will probably recognize Maria Cristina Chirolla with a House Resolution. She is a heroine and an inspiration.”

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