U.S. Indicts Colombian Paramilitary Chief

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictments against paramilitary chief Carlos Castano and two other members of the United Self-Defense Forces paramilitary group, known by its Spanish acronym AUC, on drug trafficking charges.

The indictment, issued in the U.S. District Court in Washington, alleges that Castano, AUC military commander Salvatore Mancuso, and group member Juan Carlos Sierra-Ramirez have run a narcotics operation that sent 17 tons of cocaine by ship from Colombia to the United States and Europe since 1997. The indictment also charges that Castano himself participated in kidnapping schemes, made threats and used violence to maintain direct control over drug production and distribution.

Ashcroft said the U.S. would seek to extradite Castano, who has served as the long-time head of the AUC, a 10,000-strong right-wing militia accused of massacring thousands of civilians over the course of the country’s 38-year-old civil conflict. The U.S. State Department last summer added the AUC to its list of international terror organizations.

Castano on Wednesday said he planned to surrender to U.S. authorities and that he would be cleared of drug trafficking charges.

“[Tuesday], my lawyer went to Washington, and will be there this weekend,” Castano said in an interview with a radio station from an undisclosed location.

But U.S. authorities — who have consistently cited Castano as a major player in Colombia’s cocaine trade — remained skeptical.

“If he wants to turn himself in that’s great,” Reuters quoted an unnamed senior State Department official as saying.

“Pablo Escobar used to make those statements, too,” the official said, referring to the drug kingpin who was shot dead in 1993.

Earlier last month, Castano announced the AUC would no longer directly profit from Colombia’s cocaine industry, but would only ‘tax’ coca-growers. Castano also appointed himself the AUC’s first political leader in attempt to establish the right-wing group as a legitimate political party.

The AUC’s regional militia groups have splintered over Castano’s restructuring campaign, with many groups reportedly choosing to remain involved in the drug business.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials doubted Castano could disassociate himself and the AUC from the drug trade.

“It is clear that the paramilitary organization led by Carlos Castano was immersed for years in the illegal drug trade, from the taxing of the coca growers to the processing laboratories to the transportation of cocaine to the targeted country,” DEA director Asa Hutchinson told reporters.

But Castano’s surrender to U.S. and Colombian authorities could prove invaluable in their fight against Colombia’s drug industry, responsible for providing up to 80 percent of the world’s cocaine.

In a letter to the U.S. ambassador to Colombia posted on the AUC’s official Web site, Castano claimed to know the names of the major players in the drug trade, adding that nearly one-fifth of the AUC group was engaged in drug trafficking. In the past, Castano has denied the AUC is involved in drug trafficking, arguing that the group was struggling to defend Colombia from ‘subversive’ left-wing guerrillas that actually controlled the drug trade.

The U.S. indictment comes as new Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s made his first official visit to Washington.

Uribe, who met Wednesday with President Bush, is hoping to attract U.S. interest in helping his country’s flagging economy and to speed up the implementation of U.S. intelligence sharing and military training programs, according to Colombian and U.S. officials.

The United States has spent more than $2 billion on Colombia since Congress approved increased funding in 2000, making Colombia the second-highest recipient of U.S. aid.