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Colombia extradites 14 drug suspects to U.S.

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  • NEW: Plane carrying 11 of them lands in Miami, Florida
  • Suspects will face charges in U.S. stemming from alleged cocaine trafficking ring
  • Authorities say men are former United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia members
  • Defendants to face conspiracy charges in four jurisdictions
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BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- The Colombian government sent 14 suspected paramilitary leaders to the United States on drug charges Tuesday after authorities said they violated a 2003 deal with the government.

"This morning, a group of citizens were extradited," President Alvaro Uribe said in a nationally televised address Tuesday. "Some of them had relapsed into their crimes ... others weren't cooperating with justice, and all had failed to compensate their victims."

Authorities say the men were members of the outlawed United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, an organization that the United States regards as one of the most powerful drug trafficking rings in the world and has labeled a terrorist organization.

The men boarded a plane around 6:45 a.m. to face charges in Washington, Florida, New York and Texas.

The defendants, who authorities say held various positions of power in the drug ring, will face charges including conspiracy to import and manufacture cocaine, providing support to a terrorist organization and money laundering.

Under the terms of the original deal, Uribe said the Colombian government agreed to freeze extradition to the United States and grant the defendants light sentences if they confessed to their crimes and compensated their victims.

Uribe said he agreed to extradition because authorities believed the men were dealing drugs from inside prison.

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In exchange for their extradition to the United States, the Department of Justice agreed not to seek life sentences.

"These extraditions are yet another substantial step by the government of Colombia, in partnership with the United States, to hold accountable those who support terrorist organizations and send illegal drugs into this country," said U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey in a statement from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The 14 men, taken from three Colombian prisons, left for the United States about 6:45 a.m., the Colombian government said. A plane carrying 11 of them landed late Tuesday afternoon in Miami, Florida. Another was flown directly to New York, while the two others were flown to Tampa, Florida.

The DEA said they would make initial court appearances in the districts where they arrived in the United States.

The defendants include Salvatore Mancuso Gomez, called "El Mono," once allegedly among the group's most senior leadership. Some of the defendants have already been indicted in the United States, including Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, for allegedly conspiring to smuggle thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the U.S.

Last week, Colombia extradited paramilitary boss Carlos Mario Jimenez Naranjo, also believed to be a former AUC leader, on drug-trafficking charges in the United States. Colombia claimed Jimenez had continued to traffic in drugs while in prison. His lawyer entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.

The AUC was formed as an umbrella organization for militias battling left-wing guerilla groups Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Both FARC and ELN are at war with the Colombian government.

Under the guise of protecting the Colombian public from these leftist rebel groups, the AUC committed numerous human rights abuses, according to the U.S. State Department and Human Rights Watch.

The abuses include "the massacre of hundreds of civilians, the forced displacement of entire villages and the kidnapping of political figures to force recognition of AUC demands," then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in 2001, when he designated the group a terrorist organization. The U.S. also considers FARC and ELN terrorist organizations.

Dozens of current and former Colombian lawmakers have been linked to the AUC. Many others, including Uribe's second cousin, ex-Sen. Mario Uribe Escobar, are under investigation for alleged ties.

CNN's Fernando Ramos, Kevin Bohn and Terry Frieden contributed to this report.

All About ColombiaUnited Self-Defense Forces of ColombiaDrug Trafficking

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