Columbian rebels face cocaine charges

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. grand jury has indicted on cocaine charges three members of a guerrilla group in Colombia that the Bush administration considers terrorists.

In announcing the charges Monday, Attorney General John Ashcroft described an "evil interdependence" between drug trafficking and terrorism overseas.

He said the indictment "strikes at the heart" of that relationship.

Top Justice Department officials said the three were members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and conspired to deliver "plane loads" of cocaine into the United States from 1994 until February 2001.

They include Tomas Molina Caracas, whom the government said commands FARC's 16th Front, which operates in eastern Colombia and controlled a key airstrip near Barranco Minas essential for carrying processed cocaine out of the rural region. Caracas is known in the region as "El Negro Acacio."

The others identified as FARC members were Carlos Bolas and a man known to the government only as "Oscar El Negro."

FARC, which the Colombian government has fought for years, has killed 13 Americans since 1980 and kidnapped more than a hundred others, including three American missionaries in 1993 who are believed to have been killed, Ashcroft said.

The cocaine operation was exposed after commando-style night raids called "Operation Black Cat" last month by Colombian authorities. Soldiers found Brazilian passports, cash, satellite phones and notebooks recording apparent cocaine-for-arms deals between Brazilian traffickers and FARC.

They also found airstrips, a dozen laboratories, deserted rebel camps and 25,000 acres of previously unmapped coca fields.

Experts believe the area was capable of producing 2 tons of cocaine weekly.

The criminal indictment also named four others, believed to be Brazilians. Only one of the seven people listed in the indictment, Luis Fernando Da Costa, is in custody. All were charged with conspiracy to import at least 5 kilograms of cocaine and aiding and abetting. They face up to life in prison if they are extradited to the United States and convicted.

"If you look in past cases of where we've had international traffickers targeted, we have had a fairly good success rate in bringing them to justice," Ashcroft said.

Da Costa, considered one of Brazil's top narcotics traffickers, escaped the night raids last month, and was later captured in Brazil. But authorities arrested 29 other people during the raids, including a woman believed to be Da Costa's girlfriend.

Ashcroft declined to say whether U.S. military forces would try to arrest the other six named in the indictment. "We'll use every appropriate measure at our disposal," Ashcroft said. "I don't think we've alleged that they (Colombian forces) will just suddenly be able to put their hands on them."

A grand jury in Washington returned the indictment earlier this month, but it was kept under seal until important witnesses in the case could be protected, authorities said.

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