Colombian Warlords Appear in U.S. Courts on Drug Charges

Fourteen warlords from far-right paramilitary militias suspected in Colombia of thousands of atrocities began court appearances Wednesday around the United States on drug trafficking charges.

The 14 were extradited Tuesday and spread out over Miami, Tampa, Washington, Houston and New York for initial federal court appearances. They could face 30-year prison terms after the Bush administration agreed not to seek life sentences in exchange for extradition.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said he decided to extradite the men because they were still committing crimes from Colombian prisons, not cooperating with authorities and had failed to pay restitution to victims.

The 14 include Salvatore Mancuso, Diego Murillo and other top leaders of the notorious militias blamed for modern Colombia's worst atrocities.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys in Miami agreed that Ramiro Vanoy-Murillo, 60, and Francisco Zuluaga-Lindo, 38, will be held without bail until trial. They are named in a 1999 indictment as participants in a huge cocaine smuggling ring responsible for bringing tons of the drug into the United States.

Defense attorney Dennis Urbano said he couldn't comment about the drug case because he just agreed to represent both men.

"I really know very little about what's going on," Urbano said.

Vanoy-Murillo and Zuluaga-Lindo, wearing tan prison jumpsuits and leg chains at their brief court hearing, said little other than to give their names and ages. U.S. Magistrate Judge William C. Turnoff set a June 4 date for the men to enter pleas and determine whether they have enough money untainted by drugs or other illegal activity to pay Urbano.

The others extradited were expected to appear elsewhere later Wednesday and Thursday.

The U.S. Treasury Department must approve such legal representation because the men are on a list that subjects their assets to seizure. Uribe said any assets seized as a result of U.S. prosecutions would go to compensate victims in Colombia. At least 160,000 people have registered there as victims.

Thousands of Colombians have lodged formal complaints of "atrocious crimes" against the paramilitaries — including murder, rape, forced disappearances and kidnapping. Hundreds of mass graves are thought to remain hidden in Colombia.

Much of the suffering was the direct result of orders given by the warlords now facing U.S. prosecution.