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U.S. indicts 50 Colombians it calls 'narcoterrorists'

FARC rebels accused of exporting $25 billion worth of cocaine

From Terry Frieden
CNN

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The DEA says that FARC uses cocaine proceeds to buy weapons often used for terrorist activities.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Fifty leaders of the Colombian rebel group FARC, described as "narcoterrorists" by U.S. authorities, have been indicted in Washington for allegedly exporting more than $25 billion worth of cocaine to the U.S. and other countries, Justice Department officials announced Wednesday.

Among other allegations, the indictment states that the charged FARC leaders set the price at which Colombian coca farmers could sell cocaine paste, a raw form of the drug that was transported to jungle laboratories and turned into the finished product.

Farmers who undercut the price or otherwise violated FARC's strict cocaine policies, which also dictated to which buyers the farmers could sell, were punished severely, according to the indictment.

"Colombian farmers who violated FARC rules were allegedly shot, stabbed, or dismembered alive, and the bodies of murdered farmers were cut open, filled with rocks and sunk in nearby rivers," according to a DEA news release.

U.S. pushes for extradition

Three of the FARC leaders already are in Colombian custody, and the United States will seek their extradition to face drug-trafficking charges, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said at a Justice Department news conference in Washington.

They have been identified as Jorge Enrique Rodriguez Mendieta, Erminso Cuevas Cabrera and Juan Jose Martinez Vega, all of whom were arrested more than a year ago by Colombian or Venezuelan authorities.

Rodriguez Mendieta and Cuevas Cabrera are charged with overseeing the distribution of thousands of kilograms of cocaine and cocaine paste, while Martinez Vega is charged with trading arms for cocaine, said a Justice Department news release.

"Rodriguez Mendieta is also alleged to have ordered the murder of at least eight farmers, including several whom he personally dismembered alive, and to have plotted to retaliate against United States law enforcement officers who were conducting the narcotics-trafficking investigation that led to the charges announced today," according to the news release.

To date, about 400 Colombians have been extradited to the United States to face drug-trafficking and other criminal charges.

FARC -- the Spanish acronym for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- is responsible for supplying more than half of the world's illicit cocaine and more than 60 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States, authorities said.

"This indictment strikes at the very heart of the FARC narcotics operation that has flooded our communities with cocaine," Gonzales said in a written statement. He said that Wednesday's announcement represented "the largest narcotics-trafficking indictment ever filed in U.S. history."

Expressing confidence that the indictment will mark "the beginning of the end" for the FARC drug-trafficking operation, DEA Administrator Karen Tandy said, "This is the FARC's worst fear, facing American justice."

In addition to the one-count indictment, State Department officials Wednesday announced rewards totaling more than $75 million for information leading to the capture of dozens of FARC leaders, including 24 of the 47 remaining indicted fugitives.

U.S.: FARC a terror group

The FARC has been a high-level target of U.S. law enforcement officials in recent years, as its role in cocaine trafficking, extortions and kidnappings has escalated.

The DEA estimates the organization includes at least 12,000 armed combatants and an unknown number of supporters, mostly in rural Colombia. The group is largely funded by Americans, who pay $25 billion a year for 2,500 tons of Colombian cocaine, Tandy said.

"The FARC's fingerprint is on most of the cocaine sold in American neighborhoods," Tandy said in a written statement. "To put that in perspective, that's approximately $3 billion more than the annual budget of the Department of Justice."

In Colombia, the FARC is second only to oil companies in terms of annual revenue, she said.

The leftist rebel group was formed in the 1960s and has been engaged in a long struggle to overthrow the U.S.-backed government in Bogota. The United States considers FARC a terrorist organization.

In addition to the 50 leaders whose indictments were announced Wednesday, another Colombian rebel leader known as Simon Trinidad is scheduled to go on trial in June in Washington. Extradited to the United States in 2004, he is charged in connection with the murder and kidnapping of U.S. citizens whose plane went down in FARC-controlled territory of Colombia.

Three U.S. citizens aboard that plane survived and have been in FARC custody for more than three years. The DEA said that since 1980, the FARC has kidnapped more than 100 individuals and murdered 13 U.S. citizens, including three U.S. missionaries who were executed in 1999.

Nayibe Rojas Valderama, a leading female FARC leader known in Colombia as Sonia, is also awaiting trial on drug-trafficking charges in Washington.

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