BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia extradited one of South America's top suspected cocaine kingpins to Miami on Tuesday, a U.S. drug official said.
Alejandro Bernal is accused of leading a smuggling ring believed to have shipped up to 30 tons of cocaine a month to the United States at its height in the late 1990s.
U.S. prosecutors say Bernal was an even more important figure in the organization than Fabio Ochoa, a former Medellin cocaine cartel kingpin whose September extradition to the United States drew wide attention.
Bernal was put on a U.S. plane in Bogota headed for Miami, said Leo Arreguin, chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Colombia.
He and Ochoa are among 31 Colombians arrested in October 1999 with DEA support in a dragnet dubbed Operation Millennium. At the time, U.S. and Colombian officials said they had dismantled one of the most important drug-trafficking organizations in the world.
Bernal, allegedly known in the drug world by the nickname "Juvenal," is believed to have been the key intermediary between Colombian traffickers and a Mexican cartel that moved the cocaine into the United States.
His extradition "is a victory for the Colombian government and the U.S. government," Arreguin said by telephone.
President Andres Pastrana signed Bernal's extradition papers last week after Colombia's Supreme Court approved the handover. His trial could begin by February, Arreguin said.
U.S. officials favor extradition because traffickers typically receive much stiffer sentences in the United States than in Colombia, where corruption and intimidation plague the justice system.
More than three dozen Colombians have been extradited since Pastrana took office in 1998, shortly after Colombia's Congress reinstated the practice. Extradition had been outlawed in a 1991 constitution amid violent intimidation by the now-defunct Medellin cartel led by Pablo Escobar.
Bernal is believed to be a former lieutenant of Escobar, who was killed by police in 1993. He is considered an example of Colombia's newer generation of traffickers -- lower-profile, higher-tech and less violent than their predecessors.
The South American country, the main recipient of a $1.3 billion U.S. anti-drug package last year, is the world's largest cocaine producer and the main exporter of heroin to the United States.