- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 25, 2002

The leaders of a right-wing paramilitary organization in Colombia were indicted yesterday on charges of conspiring to smuggle 17 tons of cocaine into the United States and Europe over the past five years.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, at an afternoon press conference, said the government would seek the extradition of Carlos Castano, leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials AUC, along with two of his top lieutenants, Salvatore Mancuso and Juan Carlos Sierra-Ramirez.
The AUC is a Colombian paramilitary group listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization.
"The indictment of these high-ranking AUC members marks, once again, the convergence of two of the top priorities of the Department of Justice: the prevention of terrorism and the reduction of illegal drug use," Mr. Ashcroft said.
"As today's indictment reminds us, the lawlessness that breeds terrorism is also a fertile ground for the drug trafficking that supports terrorism," he said. "To surrender to either of these threats is to surrender to both."
Castano, in a letter delivered yesterday to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, said he would step down as AUC leader and defend himself against the charges.
"I will make the necessary arrangements for my professional and family life and proceed with the formalities of voluntarily handing myself over to United States justice," he wrote. "I have never been involved in the wicked business of drug trafficking, and I have been its natural enemy."
No timetable for his surrender was announced, but an AUC spokesman told reporters Castano had told his troops farewell and was headed to the United States. Headquartered in the mountains of northwest Colombia, Castano and his two lieutenants face life in prison if convicted.
The five-count indictment, handed up in U.S. District Court in Washington, follows by six months an indictment of several members of the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC and also listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization.
Mr. Ashcroft said the indictment showed the AUC leaders were not the anti-FARC freedom fighters they claimed to be, but "violent drug traffickers who poison our citizens and threaten our national security."
The AUC indictment is the culmination of a 30-month undercover investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration, working in cooperation with the Justice Department, U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Coast Guard.
DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson, who attended the press conference, said it was the government's "expectation and intent" to see that Castano, Mancuso and Sierra-Ramirez were arrested and extradited to the United States, "as the law required."
"The drug trade operated by the leaders of the AUC provided the means to equip an army of paramilitary terrorists with the necessary weapons, cash and provisions," Mr. Hutchinson said.
"It is clear that the paramilitary organization led by Carlos Castano was immersed for years in the illegal drug trade, from the taxing of the coca growers to the processing laboratories to the transportation of cocaine to the targeted country," he said.
Mr. Hutchinson called the indictment "the first step along many steps in reducing the flow of cocaine coming into the United States."
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is visiting Washington this week. His interior minister, Fernando Londono, said yesterday that Colombia would immediately receive and analyze the formal extradition requests from the U.S. government.
The indictment said Castano directed cocaine production and distribution activities in AUC-controlled regions of Colombia, including protecting coca-processing laboratories, setting quality and price controls for cocaine, and arranging for and protecting cocaine shipments both within and outside of Colombia.
It said Castano, Mancuso and Sierra-Ramirez used violence, force and intimidation to maintain their authority over cocaine trafficking activities including kidnapping, threats and the murder of another Colombian drug trafficker as retribution for failing to pay a drug debt.


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