Suspected Colombian Drug Kingpins Charged

Nine reputed leaders of Colombia's largest drug cartel (search) have been indicted on charges their organization smuggled more than $10 billion worth of cocaine into the United States, federal officials announced Thursday.

"We have indicted the ringleaders of a criminal organization responsible for bringing into the United States one-third to one-half of the cocaine that reaches our shores," said Karen Tandy, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (search).

Only one of the nine was in U.S. custody; new rewards were offered for information leading to the arrest of the others.

The grand jury indictment unsealed in Washington alleges the Norte Valle Cartel leaders sent more than 1 million pounds of cocaine from Colombia to the United States through Mexico since 1990.

The cartel used bribery, brutality and murder in their operation and even had their own wiretaps in Colombia to monitor conversations of rival drug traffickers, the indictment said. The cartel has used trucks, aircraft, speedboats and fishing boats to smuggle cocaine.

Additional grand jury indictments unsealed Thursday in New York add conspiracy, money laundering and drug charges to the list of federal offenses brought against cartel kingpins Luis Hernando Gomez Bustamante, Arcangel Henao-Montoya and Wilmer Varela.

That part of the investigation dates to 1997, when U.S. agents began tracking drug money discovered in raids of three small wire-transfer storefront firms in Queens, N.Y.

"Evidence from those raids seven years ago ultimately led to three of the major cartel players," said Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief Michael Garcia.

All nine men are charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (search) with operating a cocaine trafficking enterprise as well as cocaine importation and distribution. They all face up to life in prison.

"This case further reinforces our message to all drug dealers: Regardless of where you are, we will find you, prosecute you and punish you," Attorney General John Ashcroft said.

Only one of those charged is in U.S. custody. Henao-Montoya was captured in Panama in January and is jailed in New York awaiting trial, officials said. The others remain at large, most likely in Colombia.

The State Department announced that a reward of up to $5 million is being offered for information leading to the arrests of the other cartel leaders. In addition, one of those charged — Diego Leon Montoya-Sanchez — is being added to the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.

The others charged are Juan Carlos Ramirez-Abadia, Carlos Alberto Renteria-Mantilla, Gabriel Puerta-Parra, Jorge Orlando Rodriguez Ocero and Jairo Aparicio-Lenis.