MIAMI – His peaceful bid to avoid extradition ended, Colombian drug kingpin Fabio Ochoa was delivered to the United States on Saturday to face charges that he belonged to a gang that smuggled in 30 tons of cocaine a month.
Ochoa, a former top leader of the notorious Medellin cartel, is the highest-profile Colombian sent to face charges in the United States since Colombia revived extraditions in 1997.
"It sends a message that everybody's held accountable," Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Joe Kilmer said Saturday.
Kilmer said Ochoa faces a bail hearing Monday in U.S. Magistrate Court and the government will ask for pretrial detention.
"Everything will boil down to the fairness of the American justice system in how it treats someone who has been labeled a Colombian drug lord," Ochoa's attorney, Jose Quinon, told The Miami Herald. "The question is whether we can get past the label and get a fair trial."
Despite years of U.S.-backed drug-fighting efforts, Colombia remains the world's leading cocaine exporting nation and an increasingly important source of the heroin sold in this country.
The State Department warned Americans in Colombia to take extra security precautions, noting "the past history of narcotics traffickers conducting bombings in public areas as a reprisal for or deterrent to extradition."
Ochoa fought extradition peacefully with legal appeals and an Internet page outlining his defense, and by erecting billboards in Bogota and Medellin proclaiming: "Yesterday I made a mistake. Today I am innocent."
That struggle ended Friday, when he was put on a DEA plane in Bogota after a Colombian judge lifted an order he had granted earlier suspending the handover.
"Justice did not triumph, and all Colombians have lost," Martha Nieves Ochoa, Fabio Ochoa's sister, told reporters from the family's home in Medellin.
In 1990, Ochoa was the first major Colombian trafficker to surrender in return for a promise that he would not be extradited.
When he and two older brothers were released from jail in 1996, they promised never to get involved in the drug business again.
The U.S. extradition request, based largely on bugged conversations, says Ochoa broke that pledge, contributing his know-how to the exporting ring and helping provide cocaine, airplanes and smuggling routes.
Ochoa was arrested in October 1999 along with dozens of other suspected traffickers.
The last major cartel figure extradited was Carlos Lehder, delivered to U.S. authorities in 1987. He was sentenced in Jacksonville to life without parole, plus 135 years.
Another Medellin cartel leader, Pablo Escobar, was killed by police in 1993. He had waged a war of bombings and assassinations in the 1980s and early 1990s to avoid trial and imprisonment in the United States.
Former Panamanian ruler Gen. Manuel Noriega was convicted in Miami in 1992 on charges he took money from the Medellin drug cartel to make Panama a safe haven for cocaine smuggling. He was sentenced to 40 years in jail, but a judge reduced the sentence and Noriega could be eligible for release by 2007.
Under the Medellin cartel's pressure, extradition was declared unconstitutional in 1991. Colombia reinstated extradition in December 1997 at the request of the United States. Since then, three dozen Colombians have been extradited to the United States.
If convicted, Ochoa could face up to life in prison. The minimum on two charges — conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine — is 10 years, and the least he could serve on a charge of money laundering conspiracy is 20 years, Kilmer said.