BOGOTA, Colombia – The co-founder of the Cali drug cartel, which at its peak ruled the world's cocaine industry, was sent in handcuffs on a plane to the United States to face trial for drug trafficking and related charges.
Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela (search), known as "The Master" for his genius in concealing cocaine shipments, was indicted in Miami in 2003 along with his brother, Gilberto, on charges of drug smuggling, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
The brothers face maximum life sentences if convicted. Gilberto was extradited three months ago.
Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, surrounded by armed guards, walked slowly across the tarmac of the Palanquero Air Base on Friday before boarding the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (search) plane to Florida. Wearing a bulletproof vest and with his hands cuffed behind his back, he earlier flew aboard a Black Hawk helicopter from the Palo Gordo prison in central Colombia to the base southwest of Bogota (search), the capital.
Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt said he hoped Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela's extradition would deter other Colombians from trafficking in drugs.
"Let this be a warning (for traffickers) not to continue in the business because they will pay for it in a U.S. prison," Pretelt told Caracol television.
At its height following the collapse of Pablo Escobar's rival Medellin cartel, the Cali cartel controlled 80 percent of the world's cocaine trade, exporting drugs hidden in everything from hollow lumber and concrete fence posts to chlorine cylinders, frozen broccoli and okra.
But with the brothers' arrest in 1995, the era in which a handful of kingpins dominated the drugs trade came to an end, and the business splintered among dozens of smaller rings. Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela became the last of the great cartel barons to be extradited to the United States. The others are dead or in U.S. jails.
Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela left Colombia hours after hardline President Alvaro Uribe signed a final extradition order. Uribe has approved the extradition of more than 200 Colombians, notably former Medellin cartel kingpin Fabio Ochoa and two senior Marxist guerrillas, in the past two years, and he is Washington's closest ally in Latin America.
U.S. prosecutors believe the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers continued to smuggle drugs from behind bars. Their sister, Aide Rodriguez, who visited Miguel on Friday, denied they plan to provide information to U.S. authorities in exchange for leniency and guarantees that other family members will be left alone.
Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela allegedly ran the cartel's day-to-day operations while Gilberto, nicknamed "The Chess Player," did the strategic planning, focusing on ways the cartel could stay ahead of rivals and outwit authorities.
Prosecutors have more wiretap evidence against Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela because of his penchant for hours-long telephone calls. The brothers allegedly maintained control of parts of their empire after their arrest by turning over operations to Miguel's eldest son, William Rodriguez Abadia, who remains on the run.
The family kept in touch through jail visitors and telephone calls.