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U.S. Charges Paramilitary Commander

Drugs: The indictment breaks new ground in relations between the U.S. and Colombia.


BOGOTA, Colombia — The United States announced the indictment of the leader of Colombia's feared paramilitary army on drug charges Tuesday, the first time such a high-ranking figure in the outlaw group has faced the possibility of U.S. justice.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said the U.S. would seek the extradition of Carlos Castano and two other leaders of the right-wing paramilitary group for allegedly transporting nearly 15 tons of cocaine into the United States since 1997.

Castano and the paramilitary forces are violent drug traffickers who "threaten our national security," Ashcroft told a news conference in Washington.

The announcement, coming during a visit to Washington by newly elected Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, increases pressure on Colombian authorities to act against Castano.

The Colombian government has long been accused of working closely with Castano, whose group is responsible for massacring hundreds of civilians. The two share a common enemy in Colombia's leftist guerrilla groups, who want to overthrow the government and replace it with a Marxist regime.

The cooperation between the Colombian government and Castano's group has become the chief obstacle to closer relations between the U.S. and Colombia. Democratic lawmakers have insisted that Bogota take concrete steps against Castano's group before receiving more military or counter-narcotics aid. The U.S. has supplied Colombia with nearly $2 billion in aid over the last several years.

Castano faces more than 90 charges in Colombia, ranging from torture to murder. Colombian authorities have never managed to capture Castano, although he frequently gives media interviews and has had contact with top Colombian political and religious figures.

Colombian officials said they will carefully study the extradition request but made it clear they would send Castano to the U.S. if captured. The Colombian government "must verify that the formal requirements are completed," said Fernando Londono, the justice and interior minister.

Human rights groups welcomed the move, saying the U.S. was belatedly sending a clear message to Colombians to capture Castano.

"It's a good step, but it doesn't solve the problem," said Robin Kirk, a Colombia expert for Human Rights Watch. "The problem is that the military continues to work with the paramilitaries."

Kirk also said that if Castano is brought to the U.S., human rights groups would immediately seek to have him face torture charges, which can be prosecuted in U.S. courts because of a judicial treaty.

Rumors swirled Tuesday that Castano was preparing to turn himself in. He has made vague offers in the past to surrender to U.S. authorities if indicted.

Local media broadcast a letter Castano supposedly wrote to U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson on Tuesday offering to hand himself over to prove his innocence. Embassy officials denied receiving such a letter.

Castano's lawyer said he had not communicated with his client since the announcement was made but doubted that Castano will be on his way to the United States any time soon.

"I don't think that Carlos has made up his mind one way or the other," said Joaquin Perez, a Miami-based criminal law attorney.

Castano has long admitted that his group relies at least partly on the drug trade to finance operations for an army estimated at 10,000 fighters. Recently, however, the group has split over just how involved it should be in narcotics, leading to concerns about a breakup into numerous smaller, private armies.

In a summit with paramilitary leaders held at a secret location this month, Castano reportedly demanded that the fighters restrict their activities to charging "taxes" on the production of cocaine, giving up protection of drug production and the transport of cocaine.

Colombia is the source of 90% of the cocaine on U.S. streets and most of the heroin available on the East Coast.

"We must abandon drugs, or we will all drown in them," Castano reportedly said after the end of the summit.

But Tuesday's announcement laid out a case alleging that Castano, Salvatore Mancuso and Juan Carlos Sierra were deeply involved in drug trafficking. Mancuso is the group's military leader, and Sierra allegedly was in charge of coordinating its drug shipments.

The indictment alleges that Castano and Mancuso personally stationed fighters to guard cocaine labs in Colombia; met with farmers growing coca, the base for cocaine; fixed prices in drug-growing zones they controlled; and provided the cocaine for numerous shipments to the U.S.

Perez defended his client's innocence and said Castano believes that drugs have corrupted Colombia's society.

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