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Colombian Guerrilla Is Extradited in '99 Killing of 3 Americans

Nelson Vargas Rueda of the leftist FARC is the first rebel to be sent to the U.S. to face trial.

May 29, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — A leftist rebel accused of participating in the killing of three Americans here in 1999 was extradited Wednesday, marking the first time Colombia has turned over a guerrilla to face justice in the United States.

Nelson Vargas Rueda, 33, a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was shown on television surrounded by more than two dozen Colombian police officers as he was led away handcuffed from a Colombian maximum security prison.

The FBI "is taking him away in a charter airplane to the United States," said Col. Mario Gutierrez, director of Colombia's judicial police.

Vargas Rueda's extradition is the latest sign that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has become one of the United States' closest allies in troubled South America, where several leaders have been elected recently after distancing themselves from unpopular U.S. economic policies.

During the four-year term of former President Andres Pastrana, 51 Colombians were extradited to the United States, most of them on drug trafficking charges. In only the first 10 months of Uribe's term, by contrast, 43 Colombians have been sent to the U.S. to face charges.

Vargas Rueda is accused of being part of a guerrilla squad that shot and killed three American activists who were kidnapped while helping members of an indigenous tribe protest against Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum for drilling near their land in northeastern Colombia.

The bodies of Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok and Laheenae Gay were found shot to death in March 1999 just across the Colombian border in Venezuela. Their killings led the U.S. government to suspend all contact with the FARC, the largest guerrilla group in Latin America.

Oakland resident Freitas was working with Washinawatok and Gay to help the Uwa, an indigenous people who live in the northeastern province of Arauca, one of the most violent and dangerous in Colombia.

U.S. officials said Wednesday that they were pleased with the arrest of Vargas Rueda, but they noted that he was a relatively minor player in the rebel group.

Last May, the U.S. attorney's office indicted six FARC members for the shootings, including German Briceno, brother of the FARC's No. 2 commander. In November, Colombian authorities arrested three more rebels named in the indictment, but they have not yet been extradited. "It's a high-profile case, but this guy was not real high in the hierarchy," said a U.S. Embassy official here.

The U.S. attorney's office has also indicted several FARC guerrillas on drug trafficking charges. Last year, Carlos Bolas, accused of helping set up drug deals for the group, was extradited from Suriname. The FARC has denied that he is a member.

Vargas Rueda has denied involvement in the 1999 shootings; he says police have confused him with another guerrilla with the same nickname -- "The Pig."

The FARC has admitted that rebels from the group's 10th Front shot the three Americans.

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