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Medellin Ex-Leader Pleads Innocent

September 10, 2001

MIAMI (AP) _ A leader of Colombia’s Medellin cartel pleaded innocent Monday to charges that he helped smuggle 30 tons of cocaine a month and spirited away the profits.

Fabio Ochoa, 45, was flown to Miami over the weekend to face the charges. He is being held without bond and his attorney said he will not seek it for now.

Ochoa has immunity on crimes committed before an extradition treaty was signed in 1997, but could face a life sentence if convicted of three conspiracy counts charging he helped smuggle tons of cocaine in 1998 and 1999.

Ochoa’s attorney, Jose Quinon, said his client has acknowledged drug trafficking ``in the distant past.″ He said Ochoa had not committed any crimes since the treaty was signed.

Quinon was co-counsel in 1987 for Carlos Lehder, the last major cartel figure to be sent north from Colombia. Lehder was convicted and began cooperating with investigators after receiving a life sentence.

The Ochoa extradition prompted a State Department warning to Americans in Colombia to take extra security precautions. The last attack thought to be in response to the government’s extradition policy was in November 1999, when a bomb in Bogota exploded, killing eight bystanders.

Three men also extradited from Colombia appeared in court with Ochoa on Monday. Jairo Sanchez Christancho pleaded innocent. Jario de Jesus Mesa Sanin and Luis Fernando Rebellon Arcila did not enter pleas. They are also accused of conspiring to ship cocaine.

Ochoa and his two older brothers were at the top of the Medellin cartel with the late Pablo Escobar when organizers took a fragmented business and applied a corporate approach to cocaine smuggling in the 1970s and 1980s.

The cartel’s heyday ended when its leader, Pablo Escobar, was shot dead by police in 1993. Today no single gang dominates smuggling.

In 1991, Ochoa was the first major trafficker to surrender to the Colombian government in return for a promise that he would not be extradited.

But U.S. prosecutors say Ochoa got back into the cocaine trade after going free in 1996. He was arrested in 1999 along with dozens of other suspected traffickers in a joint DEA-Colombian police operation.

Ochoa’s sister, Martha Nieves Ochoa, said the DEA concocted the charges because her brother refused to work undercover after his release from a Bogota prison in 1996.