Colombian paramilitary chief facing U.S. drug charges
BY TIM JOHNSON
WASHINGTON - The U.S. government on Tuesday accused outlaw paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño and two other members of his powerful anti-guerrilla army in Colombia of smuggling 17 tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe over the past five years.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, noting that Castaño recently
said he wanted to ''face the U.S. justice system,'' called on the sought-after
paramilitary leader to
"surrender to United States authorities.''
Within an hour of the federal indictment announcement, unconfirmed
news reports said Castaño, 36, had bid farewell to his troops in
the mountains of northern
Colombia and was preparing to surrender. A spokesman for Castaño later denied the reports.
Castaño's Miami attorney, Joaquín Pérez, said he could not confirm Castaño's whereabouts. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Miami and Washington said they did not know if Castaño planned to surrender.
The indictments of Castaño, fellow commander Salvatore Mancuso and paramilitary member Juan Carlos Sierra-Ramírez came at a critical juncture in U.S.-Colombia relations and as President Alvaro Uribe visited Washington seeking sustained economic and military assistance to regain control of his homeland.
Human rights monitors blame the 11,000 or so members of Castaño's paramilitary forces for the vast majority of atrocities and massacres in Colombia in recent years. Even so, Castaño has significant support among Colombians, some of whom view his armed group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, as fighting harder to stand up to leftist guerrillas than the conventional army.
In the past half-decade, Castaño has emerged as a lightning-rod figure, both hailed and despised. His raspy voice, scraggly beard and personal story are widely known. He has said his crusade against leftist guerrillas began when rebels kidnapped and killed his father in 1980.
Ashcroft called Castaño and the two others ''violent drug traffickers who poison our citizens and threaten our national security.'' He said convictions on all five counts of drug trafficking could cost them life in prison.
The 12-page indictment said Castaño oversaw a gamut of drug-related activities, from protecting cocaine-processing laboratories in the jungles and setting quality and price controls for cocaine, to managing shipments from coastal Colombia to maritime vessels. It details a series of narcotics shipments to the United States and Europe using routes through Martinique in the Caribbean and the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa.
Ashcroft said the investigation began 2 ½ years ago. A grand jury in the District of Columbia returned the indictment and, if captured, Castaño would presumably be tried in Washington.
The indictment of the paramilitary leaders marked ''the convergence
of two of the top priorities of the Department of Justice: the prevention
of terrorism and the
reduction of illegal drug use,'' Ashcroft said.
The State Department formally labeled Castaño's group as a terrorist organization last year. Tuesday's indictment was the first lodged against the group. In March, U.S. prosecutors charged several members of leftist insurgency the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, with drug trafficking. One alleged rebel was captured in Suriname in June, and extradited to the United States for trial.
The indictment says Castaño ordered paramilitary troops in 1998 to guard cocaine-processing laboratories near Yarumal and Caucasia, towns in Antioquia state where Uribe was once governor. The same year, Castaño gathered traffickers in the town of San Pablo, where he brokered protection fees and ''the right of distributors to purchase and export cocaine,'' it says.
Castaño provided shipments of cocaine to other traffickers 10 times, including a nearly nine-ton shipment in December 1999 stowed aboard the freighter M/V Nativa, it says. The ship was seized a month later in Arica, Chile.
In October 2000, unindicted co-conspirators of Mancuso, one of Castaño's confidantes, ''murdered and decapitated a drug trafficker in Colombia in retribution for the failure to pay a debt'' to Mancuso, the indictment says. It adds that Mancuso traveled to Miami in 1997 carrying $11,350 in cash.
Without detail, the indictment says Castaño ordered a member of his group ''to threaten an individual'' in Miami-Dade County on Feb. 2 and 27 of this year.
Sierra-Ramírez, who goes by the nickname ''El Tuso,'' is accused of a series of cocaine dealings to compensate for the capture of cocaine aboard the Nativa. It says he provided an unnamed person with cash to repair a ship in the Cape Verde Islands in early 2000. The ship was brought near the coast of Martinique, where a speedboat was to take 2.2 tons of cocaine from coastal Colombia to the ship, the indictment says.
Pérez, Castaño's attorney, said the paramilitary leader ''can categorically deny that he has been directly involved'' in drug trafficking.
Moreover, Pérez said, Castaño has cajoled major Colombian drug traffickers to get out of narcotics smuggling and turn themselves over to U.S. prosecutors in pursuit of lenient treatment.
In February, Castaño presided over a meeting of more than 60 drug traffickers in the city of Cartago and urged them to abandon the drug trade, Pérez said. Among those at the meeting were Victor Patiño Fomeque, a former Cali cartel leader, and Hernando Gómez, a trafficker from the North Valley cartel, he said.
''He made it clear that the AUC will not tolerate this type of activity and he wanted people to submit to justice,'' Pérez said.
Castaño's apparently ambiguous attitude toward drug trafficking may have contributed to a squabble among paramilitary forces earlier this year that led to a fissure in the group, and prompted Castaño to briefly retire. He repeatedly said in recent news interviews that cocaine trafficking is to blame for his nation's ills.
Herald staff writer Larry Lebowitz in Miami contributed to this