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U.S. officials unseal indictment of Colombian paramilitary leader
Associated Press | September 24, 2002 | PETE YOST

Posted on 09/24/2002 9:26:56 PM PDT by HAL9000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The federal government unsealed indictments Tuesday alleging Carlos Castano and two members of his feared right-wing paramilitary group in Colombia brought 17 tons of cocaine into the United States and Europe since 1997.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said the government will seek extradition of the men, who are part of the outlawed United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

However, an aide to Castano said the paramilitary group leader bade farewell to his troops Tuesday and was traveling to the United States. Neither Colombian nor U.S. officials confirmed the report.

Ashcroft said the indictments, handed up in U.S. District Court in Washington, marks the convergence of two top Justice Department priorities: prevention of terrorism and reduction of illegal drug use.

Castano, his military commander Salvatore Mancuso and group member Juan Carlos Sierra-Ramirez are violent drug traffickers who "threaten our national security,'' Ashcroft told a news conference where he and Asa Hutchinson, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, disclosed the charges.

Castano's headquarters are in the mountains of northwest Colombia, where he has led a war against leftist rebels. He has tried to distance his group from drug trafficking, and told reporters recently that if the United States sought his extradition he would surrender and willingly go to the United States.

"That is the best way to defend myself. I prefer to clarify there, rather than respond here, for things I haven't done,'' Castano told a Colombian journalist earlier this month.

Colombian Interior Minister Fernando Londono said the Colombian government would analyze the U.S. extradition request. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is visiting Washington this week.

A Castano aide who goes by the nom de guerre Duncan told The Associated Press by phone in Colombia that Castano said goodbye to his troops and was heading to the United States.

U.S. drug agents in Colombia refused to comment. The chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Colombia, Leo Arreguin, was out of the country, his office said.

While Colombia and the United States have strong relations, the presence of the paramilitaries in Colombia's 38-year war has been nettlesome. Whether Colombian security forces succeed in capturing Castano will be a test of how deeply the Colombian government is committed to battling the paramilitaries.

Human rights groups accuse the paramilitaries of widespread abuses, and they operate with impunity in many areas of Colombia where Colombian army and police are present.

There was no immediate response from Castano to Tuesday's announcement. Phones at paramilitary offices went unanswered, and he did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Castano's group, known by its initials in Spanish as the AUC, has waged war against rebels and has killed numerous civilians suspected of collaborating with the insurgents. It began its fight in the 1980s and was funded by rural landowners who sought protection from rebel kidnappings and extortion.

Castano is a former Colombian army scout whose father was kidnapped and killed by rebels in 1980.

Uribe's government insists it is waging war against the paramilitaries but the militia -- many of whose members are former Colombian army soldiers -- often coordinates its attacks with the Colombian security forces.

The paramilitaries have earned huge profits by "taxing'' Colombia's cocaine industry, as do the rebels.

The United Sates considers the AUC, and Colombia's two rebel armies, as terrorist groups.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

TOPICS: Foreign Affairs; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: ashcroft; auc; carloscastano; castano; colombia; uribe

1 posted on 09/24/2002 9:26:57 PM PDT by HAL9000
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