- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

MIAMI (AP) — A leader of a major 1980s Colombian cocaine cartel was convicted yesterday of charges that he rejoined a smuggling network after he was released from prison in his homeland and given amnesty in the United States.

Fabio Ochoa could be sentenced to life on two federal drug conspiracy charges that contend he joined a 30-ton-a-month smuggling network from 1997 to 1999. Sentencing was set for Aug. 19.

Ochoa, 46, made a sign of the cross, closed his eyes and dropped to his knees in the courtroom after the verdict was read. Jurors reached the verdict after deliberating for five hours over two days.

The defense said it was planning to appeal.

A onetime leader of the now-defunct Medellin cartel, Ochoa is the most prominent Colombian drug suspect to be tried in the United States since the two countries resumed extraditions in 1997.

He served five years in Colombian prisons in the 1990s under a program intended to crush drug barons after years of cartel-ordered bombings and assassinations.

During the 3-week trial, prosecutors had little evidence connecting Ochoa to the Bogota-based network led by Alejandro Bernal. In a case with 1,500 hours of Colombian police tape recordings, Ochoa’s voice was caught on only one three-hour segment in Bernal’s bugged office June 16, 1999.

But the prosecution argued he had hid his tracks skillfully.

“He’s made a life and a career and a king’s fortune by being very careful,” prosecutor Ed Ryan told jurors in closing arguments Tuesday. “People don’t get to be at his level by making stupid mistakes.”

The defense said Ochoa socialized with traffickers but insisted he did not return to the life he abandoned in 1990 by joining the Colombian amnesty program. They said the voice on the tapes from Bernal’s office was not Ochoa’s, and taps on two of Ochoa’s phones produced no evidence for trial.

The strongest evidence against Ochoa came from Bernal and three other co-defendants, who cooperated with prosecutors in hopes of getting lighter sentences.

They said Ochoa attended key meetings at what prosecutors said was “the Wal-Mart of drug trafficking,” and was set to receive profits on two cocaine shipments.

Defense attorney Roy Black maintained that the government was desperate to get its hands on a man it blames for smuggling tons of cocaine into the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mr. Black told jurors in closing arguments not to convict Ochoa for his past, saying: “He’s paid the price for that. He should not be convicted again for something he’s already been convicted of, punished for and put in prison.”

“The government was able to spend half of the trial on the exploits of the Medellin cartel,” Mr. Black said after the verdict. The jury found Ochoa “guilty by history or association or something other than what he was charged with.”

Ochoa has been in jail since his arrest in October 1999.

Security was tight during the trial. The jury was anonymous, and when the verdict was read, six U.S. marshals surrounded Ochoa, and eight others stood at the courtroom’s doors.

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