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Drug Kingpin Faces U.S. Trial

Drug kingpin Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, wearing handcuffs and a bulletproof vest, was put aboard a U.S. government plane Friday night and flown to the United States for trial, becoming the most powerful Colombian trafficker to ever be extradited to America.

Rodriguez Orejela and his brother controlled the powerful Cali cartel, which, in the 1990s, was the world's largest cocaine supplier.

A phalanx of helmeted police armed with assault rifles escorted the leader of the once-feared Cali drug cartel to the plane at a military airfield on the edge of Bogota. It took off into the night sky minutes later. Top American and Colombian authorities hailed the extradition.

"Every day judicial cooperation between our two countries is becoming more effective and more visible," Col. Oscar Naranjo, chief of Colombia's Judicial Police, told The Associated Press. "This means that the criminals will not find any sanctuary to evade justice."

U.S. 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."

Soldiers and police brandishing rifles guarded a convoy that sped the kingpin from La Picota prison to the airfield.

The kingpin, whose hair has gone gray and who has turned chubby while in a Colombian prison over the past nine years, faces trial in federal courts in Miami and New York for trafficking cocaine and laundering money.

Nicknamed "The Chess Player" for his shrewdness, he and his brother Miguel founded and headed the notorious Cali cartel. In the 1990s, the cartel controlled 80 percent of the world's cocaine trade, earning $8 billion in annual profits, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has said.

Michael J. Garcia, an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Rodriguez Orejuela will be "arguably the highest-level drug trafficking figure to ever occupy a U.S. prison cell."

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," Boyd said in a telephone interview.

However, it was for crimes Rodriguez Orejuela allegedly committed from a Colombian prison from 1999 to 2002 that led to the extradition. According to Colombian law, persons accused of trafficking drugs before December 1997 are not subject to extradition.

"In 1999 ... ICE agents launched a new investigation and developed additional and corroborating information linking the cartel to several seizures in Miami, Texas, and California," the U.S. agency said.

Rodriguez Orejuela was flown from Colombia hours after hardline President Alvaro Uribe signed the final extradition order.

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 closet in a luxury apartment.

Rodriguez Orejuela denied trafficking while behind bars.

"Colombia needs economic assistance from the United States and the U.S. government needs to showcase results in the fight against drug trafficking," he told Semana magazine. "My brother and I have a symbolic value in this context."

Unlike the rival Medellin cartel, which unleashed a war of terror on Colombia in the 1980s to avoid extradition to the United States, Cali's kingpins tried to buy respectability. They built up a network of businesses, including car dealerships, a professional soccer team and the Drogas Rebaja national pharmacy chain — which the government finally seized three months ago.

The Cali cartel contributed millions of dollars to former President Ernesto Samper's victorious 1994 campaign. The United States revoked Samper's visa, although he claimed ignorance of the cartel's donations.

But his campaign chief Fernando Botero, who became the minister of defense; Samper's campaign financial administrator Juan Manuel Avella and campaign treasurer Santiago Medina were all convicted of crimes in connection with the contributions.

Colombia's Supreme Court has yet to rule on a U.S. extradition request for Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela.

Uribe, who has vowed to bring the rule of law to a nation torn by 40 years of guerrilla warfare and drug trafficking, has authorized the extradition of more than 200 Colombians in his two years in office.

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.