Colombian drug cartel suspect lands in S. Florida
BY DANIEL de VISE
Alejandro Bernal, the suspected leader of a Colombian drug-smuggling ring that allegedly shipped as much as 30 tons of cocaine a month to the United States, arrived in South Florida on Tuesday under tight security to stand trial in an American court.
Prosecutors say Bernal led a loose-knit band of drug traffickers and money launderers expert in smuggling cocaine through Central America and Mexico into the United States aboard fishing vessels and inside shipping cartons. He will be tried in Fort Lauderdale.
Arrested in fall 1999 in a series of raids dubbed Operation Millennium, Bernal and his associates are characterized as the world's largest cocaine-smuggling operation since the fabled Medellín and Cali cartels.
``He was a big boy,'' said Special Agent Joe Kilmer, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami. ``He was known to ship cocaine in quantities of no less than one ton at a time.''
His extradition to the United States is a victory for prosecutors in both Florida and Bogotá. Bernal and other alleged drug lords tried to circumvent tough U.S. drug laws by demanding prosecution in Colombia. Drug lords jailed and tried in Colombia have been known to bribe their way out of convictions or secure lax prison terms.
Colombia outlawed extradition in 1991 under violent pressure from the now-defunct Medellín Cartel but reinstated the practice after the cartel's downfall. President Andrés Pastrana signed Bernal's extradition papers last week after the Colombian Supreme Court approved.
Prosecutors characterize Bernal as more central to Operation Millennium than Fabio Ochoa, a one-time drug lord from a fabled Medellín family. Ochoa, extradited to Florida last month, pleaded not guilty Sept. 10 to charges that he helped orchestrate the drug conspiracy.
Dan Forman, a former federal prosecutor who represents Bernal, said he could not yet discuss his client's defense.
``He's facing some very serious charges and we've not had an opportunity to look at the evidence in the case,'' Forman said.
Prosecutors say Bernal served as a key intermediary between a group of Colombian traffickers, who pooled funds to assemble large drug shipments, and a Mexican cartel that moved the cocaine into the United States. Bernal went by the nickname Juvenal, possibly a play on the Spanish term for ``youthful.''
``Everybody came to him, because transportation into Mexico and into the U.S. was his specialty,'' Kilmer said.
Bernal is one of 43 people indicted in Operation Millennium. Seventeen have pleaded guilty or await trial. Nineteen await extradition proceedings. Seven remain at large.
Bernal got his start in the 1980s, prosecutors say, as a small
player in the Medellín and Cali cartels. Arrested in Mexico in 1989
in connection with the seizure of 581
kilograms -- more than half a ton -- of cocaine, Bernal served three years in a Mexican prison. Investigators believe he made important connections with Mexican drug traffickers while behind bars.
Bernal is believed to be a former deputy of Pablo Escobar, the infamous drug lord killed by police in 1993. But he is also said to epitomize a new breed of Colombian drug traffickers: lower profile, more technologically adept and less violent than their predecessors.
Nonetheless, Bernal's extradition Tuesday prompted extreme security measures. He was flown to an undisclosed Fort Lauderdale-area location and escorted to DEA headquarters by a phalanx of agents. He is scheduled to appear in federal court today.
This report was supplemented with Herald wire services.