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U.S. agencies celebrate banner year in drug war

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The war on cocaine and other illegal drugs raged in new directions in 2004, with agencies in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security claiming major successes against the two most powerful Colombia-based cartels.

While the press spotlighted action in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spent the year seizing record amounts of cocaine in the largely forgotten war on drugs.

ICE "achieved unprecedented success," working closely with Colombian authorities and other agencies to interdict a mountain of more than 340,000 pounds of cocaine and 2.6 million pounds of marijuana, said ICE Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia.

The Coast Guard alone, with cutters making major seizures in the Caribbean and Colombian basin, seized 255,233 pounds of cocaine, breaking the single-year record set in 1997, Homeland Security figures show.

But 2004 was topped by the extradition of several key players in the once-dominant Cali drug cartel and the arrests of two top bosses in the Norte Valle cartel, which law-enforcement authorities say is responsible for about 40 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States.

Beginning last January, authorities in Panama working with ICE and DEA agents arrested Arcangel de Jesus Henao-Montoya, known as "El Mocho," a top player in the Norte Valle cartel. Extradited to the United States, he faces charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy and money laundering.

A New York federal court indictment accuses "El Mocho" and the Norte Valle cartel of paying Colombia's right-wing paramilitary group, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia -- a U.S.-designated terrorist organization -- to protect drug routes and laboratories.

Another arrest in the Norte Valle cartel, named for its roots in the Northern Valle del Cauca region near Colombia's western coast, came in July with the apprehension in Cuba of Luis Hernando Gomez-Bustamante, whom U.S. officials describe as one of the cartel's "top leaders."

Although he is charged in New York, Gomez-Bustamante, who was caught trying to enter Cuba with a phony Mexican passport, remains in Cuba, and it is not clear whether he will be extradited.

A third major arrest came last week when Colombians working with ICE apprehended Jose Dagoberto Florez-Rios, also accused of being a top cartel boss. ICE officials said they hope he will be extradited to the United States for trial in the coming months.

"It's been a banner year in bringing some these top guys down," one ICE official said.

The arrests signal progress in the joint U.S.-Colombian effort to fight the drug war. Arrests on Colombian soil can be carried out only by local authorities, but U.S. authorities claim a key role, with ICE agents and others operating on the ground with Colombians in Bogota.

In addition to the action against the Norte Valle, U.S. authorities say, 2004 was a bumper-crop year for extraditing Colombian drug lords, particularly those involved with the Cali cartel.

Although 90 extraditions were made, ICE officials spent the holidays toasting the transfer of one man they call "the highest-ranking drug kingpin ever to face trial in the United States."

Colombian authorities last month extradited the founder of the Cali cartel, Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, to face narcotics-trafficking and money-laundering charges in U.S. federal court in Miami.

The Cali cartel reportedly controlled about 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States during the 1990s, taking over after Pablo Escobar, head of the once-dominant Medellin cartel, was killed in 1993.

U.S. authorities hailed the extradition of Rodriguez-Orejuela as a new leap of progress in the drug war since Colombia changed its extradition rules in 1997.

"The extradition of Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela marks the beginning of the end of another chapter of the United States and Colombia's war against narcotraffickers," said Robert J. Joura, the DEA's acting special agent in charge. "Despite having been incarcerated since 1995, he has continued to wield significant influence among cocaine trafficking organizations in that country."

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