BOGOTA, Colombia – Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela (search), the most powerful Colombian drug trafficker ever extradited to the United States, said he was innocent in an interview made shortly before he was flown to Miami over the weekend.
Rodriguez Orejuela, 65, is charged, along with his brother, Miguel, with running a drug network responsible for producing 80 percent of the U.S. cocaine supply in the 1990s. He was flown Saturday to Miami, where he is in jail awaiting his first court hearing Monday.
U.S. investigators have assembled a team of smugglers, accountants and associates to testify against Rodriguez Orejuela, the biggest catch in the war on drugs to see the inside of a U.S. jail.
The strategist among the founders of the Cali cartel faces an initial court appearance Monday and an extended wait, most likely in solitary confinement, before the drug, money laundering and obstruction of justice charges against him are aired. Defense attorney Jose Quinon has no plans to ask for bond in Monday's hearing.
"I feel innocent of the charges they are making against me and I will respond to them," Rodriguez Orejuela said in the interview with the radio station W, a portion of which was published Sunday by the newspaper El Tiempo. He was referring to accusations by U.S. prosecutors.
But the drug cartel leader — who spent nearly a decade in prison in Colombia before his extradition — said he has confidence in the U.S. justice system.
"I think I will be listened to and that if my life is going to be in a prison it will be in a prison where at least I'll have minimal rights," he said.
The exact date of the interview was not given. A more complete version of the interview will be aired Monday on the W radio station, which is part of the Caracol Radio chain.
While Rodriguez Orejuela has admitted trafficking drugs in the past, his extradition was based on crimes he allegedly committed from a Colombian prison from 1999 to 2002. According to Colombian law, people accused of trafficking drugs before December 1997 are not subject to extradition.
Rodriguez Orejuela has maintained in previous interviews that he never trafficked drugs from his jail cell. He faces a possible life sentence if convicted.
In the interview, Rodriguez Orejuela also said he tried several times to negotiate a surrender with Colombian authorities after the godfather of drug trafficking, Pablo Escobar, was killed by counternarcotics agents in December 1993.
"I sent three letters to (then-President Cesar) Gaviria starting on the day Pablo Escobar was killed, with the intent to turn myself in," Rodriguez Orejuela said in the interview.
But he said Gaviria never responded to the letters. Gaviria was not immediately available for comment.
Rodriguez Orejuela was captured by Colombian authorities in June 1995. His brother, Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, has also spent about a decade in Colombian prisons, where U.S. authorities say he might stay because he has health problems.
Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela was handed over to U.S. authorities by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who has approved the extradition of more than 200 Colombians in the last two years and is considered Washington's strongest ally in Latin America.