FORMER Colombian drug boss arrives in Miami to face federal narcotics charges

Saturday, September 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MIAMI (AP) _ Alleged drug kingpin Fabio Ochoa arrived in Miami early Saturday to face prosecution on charges he belonged to a gang that sent 30 tons of cocaine a month to the United States, a federal official said.

Ochoa, a former top leader of the notorious Medellin cartel, was being held at the federal detention center in Miami and will face a judge at the U.S. Magistrate Court next week, Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Joe Kilmer said Saturday.

The handover is seen as a victory for U.S. officials who have long sought the extradition of Colombian drug lords who are flooding the United States with cocaine and heroin. Ochoa becomes the highest-profile Colombian sent to justice in the United States since Colombia revived extraditions in 1997.

Ochoa was put on a DEA plane in Bogota, Colombia, late Friday after a Colombian judge lifted an order suspending the handover.

Ochoa's extradition comes four days before Secretary of State Colin Powell is to visit Bogota. President Andres Pastrana, who signed Ochoa's extradition papers last month, was kidnapped by the Medellin cartel in 1988 when he was running for mayor of Bogota.

Ochoa's family fought bitterly to stop his being sent to stand trial in the United States.

``Justice did not triumph, and all Colombians have lost,'' Martha Nieves Ochoa, Fabio Ochoa's sister, told reporters from the family's home in Medellin.

In Washington, the State Department warned Americans in Colombia to take extra security precautions following Ochoa's extradition.

In a statement released Friday night, the department noted ``the past history of narcotics traffickers conducting bombings in public areas as a reprisal for or deterrent to extradition.''

In 1990, Ochoa was the first major Colombian trafficker to surrender in return for a promise that he would not be extradited. But U.S. prosecutors say Ochoa resumed trafficking cocaine after leaving a Colombian jail in 1996.

Ochoa was arrested in October 1999 along with dozens of other suspected traffickers.

The Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar waged a war of bombings and assassinations in the 1980s and early 1990s in order to avoid trial and imprisonment in the United States. He was gunned down by police in 1993.

Carlos Lehder, delivered to U.S. authorities in 1987, was the last major cartel figure to be extradited. He was sentenced in Jacksonville to life without parole, plus 135 years.

Under the Medellin cartel's pressure, extradition was declared unconstitutional in 1991. Colombia reinstated extradition in December 1997 at the request of the United States.

Ochoa fought his battle against extradition peacefully _ with legal appeals, an Internet page outlining his defense, and by erecting billboards in Bogota and his native Medellin proclaiming: ``Yesterday I made a mistake. Today I am innocent.''

The baby-faced youngest son of a prominent Medellin horse-breeding clan, Ochoa joined Escobar's drug empire along with two older brothers. When they were released from jail in 1996, the three promised to never get involved in the drug business again.

The U.S. extradition request, based largely on bugged conversations, says Ochoa broke his pledge. It claims he contributed his know-how to the exporting ring and helped provide cocaine, airplanes and smuggling routes.

Two other men, Jairo Mesa and Mario Sanchez Cristancho, who were captured in the same joint DEA-Colombian operation in 1999, were to have been extradited with Ochoa. It could not be confirmed if they were put on the plane with him.

Extradition has long been a top U.S. priority in Colombia. American officials complain that traffickers are able to threaten and bribe their way out of justice in Colombia.

Despite years of U.S.-backed drug-fighting efforts, Colombia remains the world's leading cocaine exporting nation and an increasingly important source of the heroin sold in the United States.