Colombia's Justice Minister has announced the dissolution of the National Narcotics Directorate (DNE), a move meant to clean up corruption with regards to the country's property seizure law, and may yet prove to be more than a symbolic change.
Justice Minister Yesid Reyes told El Pais that the DNE was liquidated on September 30, ending a protracted process to shut down the government body formerly responsible for handling assets seized from drug traffickers. It has been replaced by the Special Assets Association (SAE), which became active in July.
The SAE will handle assets seized under Colombia's property seizure law (Ley de Extincion de Dominio), while the Justice Ministry will continue to handle judicial processes for seizure cases, reported El Espectador. The SAE is linked to the Housing Ministry but is a partly private body -- a structure that an unidentified government official told El Espectador was intended to prevent political interference in the management of seized assets.
According to government figures, approximately 70,000 properties formerly in the hands of the DNE have been transferred to the SAE, reported El Espectador.
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President Juan Manuel Santos initiated the process to shut down the DNE in 2011, after it was found that billions of dollars in seized assets had gone missing since the agency was created in 1990. As part of the scandal, two high-level DNE officials and numerous congressmen were investigated for funneling seized drug funds into personal accounts.
The question now is whether this represents a real shake-up in how Colombia deals with asset seizures, or if it's merely a symbolic gesture. The fact that it's not just a name change -- the structure of the agency is also being rehauled -- is a good sign in this regard.
Colombia has also moved to address other factors that have limited the effectiveness of its asset seizure legislation, which was the first of its kind in Latin America. Amendments to the property seizure law that were enacted in January are expected to cut in half the time it takes to complete asset seizure cases, Colombia's former vice prosecutor general recently told InSight Crime.
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However, there are still some problems with enforcing the law. According to El Pais, only 18 percent of seized assets have actually been claimed by the government, while the rest are still tied up in litigation. But the problems don't stop when litigation ends -- Additionally, once the judicial process is finalized, not only can corruption in the handling of assets be an issue -- it remains difficult for the Colombian government to auction off the seized assets.