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Colombian rebel leaders charged in cocaine conspiracy

Thursday, March 23, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The United States charged 50 leaders of Colombia's largest guerrilla group with sending more than $25 billion worth of cocaine around the world to finance their fight at home, a federal indictment that depicts the rebels as major narco-terrorists.

The indictment made public Wednesday in U.S. District Court said the leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, ordered the killings of Colombian farmers who did not cooperate with the group, the kidnapping and killing of U.S. citizens and the downing of U.S. planes seeking to fumigate coca crops.

U.S. officials said the indictment strikes a blow against the group because it lays out the FARC's hierarchy and details of its operations. "Members of the FARC do not want to face American justice," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said.

He acknowledged that 47 of those charged remain at large, probably in well-defended jungle strongholds.

The FARC uses proceeds from the cocaine trade to purchase weapons in its four-decade fight to overthrow the Colombian government, the indictment said.

A grand jury returned the indictment on March 1; it remained under seal until Wednesday.

The U.S. and the European Union have designated the FARC a terrorist organization.

Colombia President Alvaro Uribe, Washington's closest ally in South America, has waged an aggressive fight against the FARC and stepped up efforts to eradicate his country's coca crop. Uribe faces re-election in May and has been leading in the polls.

The U.S. has spent more than $3 billion since 2000 to reduce Colombia's coca crop and the flow of cocaine to this country. The results have been lackluster, said John Walsh, senior analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank.

The indictment is intended to show that U.S.-Colombian cooperation is "successfully getting at the drug-trafficking industry and attacking drug financing," Walsh said.

Phillip McLean, a former American diplomat who now is at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he expects the charges will influence the debate in Colombia between those who view the FARC as a traditional guerrilla group with a political agenda and those who see it as a criminal organization.

"This indictment clearly puts the weight on the side of those who say these guys are bandits," said McLean, who served in Colombia in the 1980s and recently returned from a trip there.

The State Department said it would pay up to $75 million in rewards for information leading to the arrest of 24 FARC leaders named in the indictment.

Three others charged in the drug conspiracy are in custody in Colombia and U.S. officials said they would seek to have them extradited. They are: Jorge Enrique Rodriguez Mendieta, Erminso Cuevas Cabrera and Juan Jose Martinez Vega, authorities said.

More than 400 Colombians have been extradited to the United States to face criminal charges, officials said. Two accused FARC leaders already are awaiting trial in Washington on narcotics charges.

The FARC is holding more than 60 hostages, including three U.S. defense contractors kidnapped in February 2003, when their small plane crashed in the jungles of southern Colombia during an anti-narcotics mission.


Associated Press writer Toby Muse in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.


On the Net:

Justice Department: http://www.usdoj.gov

Drug Enforcement Administration: http://www.dea.gov


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