Colombian drug kingpin Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela was flown to the United States early today on a US government plane, becoming the most powerful Colombian trafficker ever extradited to face US courts.
Rodriguez Orejuela faces trial in federal courts in Miami and New York for plots to smuggle cocaine and launder money.
He arrived before dawn and was sent to a Miami jail, across the street from a courthouse where he is scheduled to make his initial appearance on Monday, said a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman.
Wearing handcuffs and a bullet-proof vest, the leader of the once-feared Cali cartel was escorted last night to the plane at a military airfield on the edge of the Colombian capital of Bogota.
Top American and Colombian authorities hailed the extradition.
“Every day judicial cooperation between our two countries is becoming more effective and more visible,” said Col. Oscar Naranjo, chief of Colombia’s Judicial Police. “This means that the criminals will not find any sanctuary to evade justice.”
US Attorney General John Ashcroft said: “Those who violate federal drug laws should never believe that drug trafficking from outside our borders puts them beyond the reach of justice. Rodriguez Orejuela will now stand trial for his actions.”
Nicknamed “The Chess Player” for his shrewdness, Rodriguez Orejuela and his brother, Miguel, founded and headed the notorious Cali cartel. In the 1990s, the cartel controlled 80 per cent of the world’s cocaine trade, earning $8bn (€6bn) in annual profits, the US Drug Enforcement Administration has said.
The extradition of Rodriguez Orejuela caps a 13-year investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Dean Boyd, a spokesman in Washington for the agency.
“ICE agents spent nearly 100,000 investigative case hours on this investigation since they launched it in 1991,” said Boyd.
However, crimes Rodriguez Orejuela allegedly committed from a Colombian prison from 1999 to 2002 that led to the extradition.
According to Colombian law, people accused of trafficking drugs before December 1997 are not subject to extradition.
“In 1999, ICE agents received initial information that the Cali Cartel was continuing its drug and money laundering activities from within Colombian prisons,” the US agency said.
Rodriguez Orejuela left Colombia hours after hardline President Alvaro Uribe signed the final extradition order. Colombia’s Supreme Court approved the extradition in November.
Rodriguez Orejuela, 64, was arrested in June 1995 in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, where the cartel was based. Police found him crouching in a hidden room in a luxury apartment. Rodriguez Orejuela denied trafficking while behind bars.
Previous drug traffickers who have been extradited to the United States include former Medellin cartel leaders Fabio Ochoa, who in 2003 was sentenced in Miami to more than 30 years in prison for returning to the drug trade after winning amnesty at home; and Carlos Lehder, who was sentenced in 1988 to life without parole.