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Drug Busts in Colombia, Caribbean

October 13, 1999

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ In the biggest blow to Colombian drug trafficking since 1995, authorities today arrested 30 people including Fabio Ochoa, a leader in the once-powerful Medellin cartel, the national police director announced.

Meanwhile, in a separate series of raids , the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Puerto Rico announced that drug agents in 15 Caribbean and Latin American countries had arrested 1,290 people, burst into illicit laboratories, torched cocaine plantations, and seized a veritable navy of drug-running boats over a two week period.

Colombian police chief Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano told reporters in Bogota that suspects in today’s action were seized in predawn raids and those captured in Colombia will be extradited to the United States for trial. Most of the suspects were arrested in Colombia, with others captured in Ecuador, Mexico and the United States, he said.

``This was an immense operation, an operation you could call perfect,″ Serrano told reporters. U.S. drug officials said the organization moved 20 to 30 tons of cocaine a month into Mexico for distribution throughout the United States.

Colombian police worked ``shoulder-to-shoulder″ with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and CIA in the yearlong investigation that began in Houston and Ecuador and tracked the ring’s operations all the way to Europe, said Serrano.

``These people made gigantic shipments of drugs and flooded the U.S. markets,″ Serrano told RCN radio. He said the evidence was gathered ``almost completely in the United States.″

The sting was dubbed Operation Millennium and Serrano called it the most important blow to drug traffickers in Colombia since the Cali cocaine cartel’s leaders were captured in 1995, ending the era of huge, vertically organized cartels and splintering the business.

The other drug raids, conducted between Sept. 29 and Oct. 11 and announced today in San Juan, P.R., were not related to Operation Millennium.

Though most of the people nabbed in the two-week crackdown, dubbed Operation Columbus, were low-level drug couriers or street dealers, the scale of the raids was enormous.

``This was an operation like never before seen,″ said Michael Vigil, chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s Caribbean headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico, adding it was ``the largest anti-drug operation in history.″

Unlike multinational raids aimed at particular drug rings, Operation Columbus targeted many unrelated rings of smugglers.

``These were investigations that these countries already had underway,″ Vigil said. ``The theory was to do it all at once to have a major disruption in the region.″

Colombia is the world’s leading exporter of cocaine and a growing source of heroin.

Ochoa, 42, was arrested in a midnight raid at his home in Medellin, the country’s No. 2 city, authorities said.

``I’m innocent. I swear it before my children,″ a pale, tired-looking Ochoa shouted to reporters as some 60 officers escorted the chestnut-haired suspect from the police helicopter that flew him to police headquarters in Bogota today.

``After what happened to me, I wouldn’t be so stupid as to continue in this,″ added Ochoa, who was released from prison in 1996 after serving two-thirds of an 8 1/2-year sentence for drug trafficking.

From a well-known ranching and horse-breeding family, Ochoa was among leaders of the Medellin cartel, whose fall was consummated by the December 1993 killing by police of cartel boss Pablo Escobar.

``You would have thought that the Ochoas would be careful, attending to their fortune,″ Serrano said. Ochoa’s two older brothers, Jorge Luis and Juan David, also served jail time in Colombia for drug trafficking and were released in 1996.

Other suspects arrested today, in Cali and Bogota, were identified by police as Alejandro Bernal Madrigal, Luis Revellon, Gonzalo Castiblanco and Elmer Villafane.

DEA officials in Washington said Bernal, nicknamed Juvenal, or ``the young one,″ was the ringleader. Bernal assembled a consortium of Colombian suppliers and cartels who used different trafficking routes he established through Mexico and Central America, they said.

``Bernal took his organization into a new realm where high-tech operations were the norm and where business was transacted in numerous nations,″ acting DEA administrator Donnie Marshall said in Washington.

U.S. officials said they would not be able to try Ochoa under indictments brought in the early 1980s unless Colombia revises its extradition law.

The new U.S. indictment unsealed in Miami today covers only crimes committed after Dec. 17, 1997 when Colombia restored extradition, they said.

Under the new law, Colombia can only extradite its nationals for crimes committed after that date.

Colombia has not extradited anyone for trial in the United States since 1990, when it delivered Caribbean coast trafficker Joaquin Oswaldo Oswaldo Gallo.

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