The U.S. government announced charges yesterday against 50 Colombian guerrilla leaders in connection with shipments of $25 billion worth of cocaine to the United States and other countries.
The guerrillas, leaders of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, allegedly managed the shipment of 60 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States over the past decade or so, or about 2,750 tons.
The guerrillas and their enemies, Colombia's right-wing paramilitary armies, have long been suspected of controlling Colombia's illegal drug industry, including trading drugs for arms to fuel the nation's 40-year civil conflict.
Three of the 50 suspects named in the indictments have been arrested in Colombia, and U.S. prosecutors said yesterday that they had requested their extradition. The State Department is offering $75 million in rewards for the apprehension of the other 47 suspects, all of whom prosecutors want to try in U.S. court.
"We're hoping the amounts being offered, up to $5 million each for some of the suspects, result in some arrests and in us being able to request further extraditions," said U.S. Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe generally has acceded to U.S. extradition requests, granting more than 400 since he took office in 2002. Among them are two FARC leaders who were captured and extradited to the United States last year. Nayibe Rojas Valderama, also known as "Sonia," and Juvenal Ovidio Palmeira, or "Simon Trinidad," are awaiting trial in Washington this summer on drug and terrorism charges.
U.S. officials, including Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Drug Enforcement Administration chief Karen P. Tandy, announced the indictments at a news conference at the Justice Department. Andres Pastrana, the former Colombian president who is now ambassador to the United States, also participated.
"This is the largest narcotics trafficking indictment ever filed in U.S. history and fuels our hope to reduce narco-violence in Colombia and stem the tide of illegal drugs entering our country," Gonzales said.
The United States has been involved in Colombia's war on drug traffickers since 1999 when it launched Plan Colombia, a military aid and drug eradication program. Totaling $4 billion in subsidies since its inception, it has made Colombia the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid outside the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Indictments and extraditions of Colombian drug trafficking suspects have been an integral part of U.S. policy. However, critics have accused Uribe of being more inclined to extradite leftist guerrillas than right-wing leaders of paramilitary groups, whom he is trying to demobilize. FARC fighters have resisted peace negotiations.
The timing of the announcement of the indictments, which were filed March 1 and unsealed Tuesday, raised questions among some U.S. and Colombian observers. It comes shortly before the Bush administration is expected to release annual figures for coca cultivation in Colombia, figures that showed only slight reductions in 2003 and 2004 despite expanded spraying to reduce crops.
Chris Kraul writes for the Los Angeles Times.