Pubdate: Thu, 14 Oct 1999
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Section: Front Page
Copyright: 1999 The Washington Post Company
Address: 1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Kirk Semple, Special to The Washington Post
Note: Staff writer Lorraine Adams in Washington contributed to this report.


BOGOTA, Colombia, Oct. 13 - Thirty-one alleged drug traffickers, including a
co-founder of the notorious Medellin cartel and a high-tech smuggling
magnate, were arrested today in an international dragnet that officials
described as one of the biggest blows ever against the drug trade.

Colombia's national police chief, Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, pledged that the
main suspects will be extradited to the United States, a promise that U.S.
Attorney General Janet Reno welcomed in Washington. No Colombian national
has been extradited to the United States to stand trial since 1991.

The suspects belonged to the world's largest current drug-trafficking and
money-laundering network, linking Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, the United
States and Europe in an enterprise responsible for exporting an estimated 25
to 30 tons of cocaine per month to international markets, Serrano said. The
catch included Fabio Ochoa, who with two of his brothers began the now
dispersed Medellin cartel in the 1980s, and Alejandro Bernal, alias
"Juvenal," whom authorities described as the brain behind a sophisticated
conglomerate that laundered money and used encrypted telephone equipment and
the Internet to coordinate deliveries and move profits.

Serrano described a year-long, multinational investigation that exposed the
network as "the most impressive, the most important" operation ever
conducted by Colombian authorities and their colleagues in the United States
and other Latin American countries. Most of the arrests were made in predawn
raids in the Colombian cities of Bogota, Medellin, and Cali, although at
least one suspect was seized in Mexico, Serrano said.

Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI also participated in
the investigation, dubbed Operation Millennium, he added. The suspects were
indicted last month by a grand jury in Miami. "The principal members of this
organization will be extradited to the United States," said an announcement
from Serrano's office.

Attorney General Reno, at a news conference in Washington, expressed
satisfaction at Colombia's resolve to proceed with the extraditions, which
has long been a touchy subject here. "I know after my conversation with
President [Andres] Pastrana this morning and my conversation with officials
when I was in Colombia that we will have this cooperation," she said.

If convicted of money laundering and other drug charges, the Colombians
could face life sentences in U.S. prisons 96 an eventuality feared by
Colombian drug lords.

Authorities charged that Bernal and Ochoa operated from Colombia, shipping
drugs to Mexico, where other traffickers 96 whose arrests were announced
last month in an investigation called Operation Impunity 96 shipped them on
to the United States. "Bernal no doubt thought that this arrangement
insulated him from U.S. law enforcement, but this morning he found out that
it does not do so," said the acting DEA administrator, Donnie Marshall.

Colombia has not extradited any citizen to the United States since it
changed its law eight years ago to forbid extradition after a terror
campaign masterminded by a Medellin cartel kingpin, the late Pablo Escobar.
But the extradition law was revived Dec. 17, 1997, and can be applied to
anyone accused of crimes committed since that date.

Before today's arrests, the United States had begun the lengthy extradition
process for 11 other suspects wanted for various drug trafficking charges, a
U.S. Embassy official said. All have been arrested and the United States has
fulfilled the requirements for soliciting extradition of 10 of them, he
said. The decision of who might be extradited first 96 and when 96 rests
with Colombia's Constitutional Court.

U.S. officials said the absence of extraditions from Colombia, the world's
leading exporter of cocaine and a growing source of heroin, has been an
issue of contention between the two countries. In spite of this irritant,
the U.S. Congress has been laboring over a massive new aid package to help
the Colombian military in its fight against the drug traffickers and their
allies among leftist rebel groups that control some 40 percent of the
national territory.

Against that background, Serrano hailed the intensive, multinational
Operation Millennium as a model for the war on drugs. "Narco-trafficking has
to be fought like this: with a lot of international responsibility," he said
at a news conference at police headquarters in Bogota. "Narco-trafficking
can't only be fought exclusively in only one country."

Police officers then paraded many of the defendants, handcuffed to one
another in a line, in front of reporters and television cameras.

Arguably the biggest catch was Ochoa, one of three brothers who founded the
Medellin cartel that became the world's most powerful drug trafficking
organization during the 1980s. Taking advantage of a generous plea
bargaining system, the Ochoa brothers surrendered to Colombia's judicial
system in late 1990 and received light prison sentences. Fabio Ochoa, who
police said is now 45, was released in 1996.

A short, slim man, he stood at the end of the line wearing a leather jacket
and blue slacks. While others concealed their heads with their jackets,
Ochoa gazed expressionless at the media throng, a tired look on his face.

Staff writer Lorraine Adams in Washington contributed to this report.

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