MIAMI – Colombian drug kingpin Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela (search) was flown to the United States early Saturday aboard a U.S. government plane, becoming the most powerful Colombian trafficker ever extradited to face U.S. justice.
Rodriguez Orejuela faces trial in federal courts in Miami and New York for plots to smuggle cocaine and launder money.
He arrived before dawn and was sent to a downtown jail, across the street from a courthouse where he was scheduled to make his initial appearance Monday, said a Drug Enforcement Administration (search) official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Wearing handcuffs and a bulletproof vest, the leader of the once-feared Cali cartel was escorted Friday night to the plane at a military airfield on the edge of the Colombian capital of Bogota. Colombian soldiers and police brandishing rifles guarded a convoy that sped the kingpin from La Picota prison to the airfield.
Top American and Colombian authorities hailed the extradition.
"Every day judicial cooperation between our two countries is becoming more effective and more visible," Col. Oscar Naranjo, chief of Colombia's Judicial Police, told The Associated Press. "This means that the criminals will not find any sanctuary to evade justice."
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said: "Those who violate federal drug laws should never believe that drug trafficking from outside our borders puts them beyond the reach of justice. ... Rodriguez Orejuela will now stand trial for his actions."
Nicknamed "The Chess Player" for his shrewdness, Rodriguez Orejuela and his brother, Miguel, founded and headed the notorious Cali cartel. In the 1990s, the cartel controlled 80 percent of the world's cocaine trade, earning $8 billion in annual profits, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has said.
Michael J. Garcia, an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Rodriguez Orejuela will be "arguably the highest-level drug trafficking figure to ever occupy a U.S. prison cell."
The extradition of Rodriguez Orejuela caps a 13-year investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Dean Boyd, a spokesman in Washington for the agency.
"ICE agents spent nearly 100,000 investigative case hours on this investigation since they launched it in 1991," Boyd said in a telephone interview.
However, it was for crimes Rodriguez Orejuela allegedly committed from a Colombian prison from 1999 to 2002 that led to the extradition. According to Colombian law, persons accused of trafficking drugs before December 1997 are not subject to extradition.
"In 1999, ICE agents received initial information that the Cali Cartel was continuing its drug and money laundering activities from within Colombian prisons," the U.S. agency said.
Rodriguez Orejuela left Colombia hours after hardline President Alvaro Uribe signed the final extradition order. Colombia's Supreme Court approved the extradition in November.
Rodriguez Orejuela, 64, was arrested in June 1995 in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city, where the cartel was based. Police found him crouching in a hidden closet in a luxury apartment.
Rodriguez Orejuela denied trafficking while behind bars.
"Colombia needs economic assistance from the United States and the U.S. government needs to showcase results in the fight against drug trafficking," he told Semana magazine. "My brother and I have a symbolic value in this context."
Unlike the rival Medellin cartel, which unleashed a war of terror on Colombia in the 1980s to avoid extradition to the United States, Cali's kingpins tried to buy respectability. The Cali cartel contributed millions of dollars to former President Ernesto Samper's victorious 1994 campaign. The United States revoked Samper's visa, although he claimed ignorance of the cartel's donations.
Colombia's Supreme Court has yet to rule on a U.S. extradition request for Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela.
Previous drug traffickers who have been extradited to the United States include former Medellin cartel leaders Fabio Ochoa, who in 2003 was sentenced in Miami to more than 30 years in prison for returning to the drug trade after winning amnesty at home; and Carlos Lehder, who was sentenced in 1988 to life without parole.