The suspected leader of a Colombian cocaine cartel had planned to plead guilty Tuesday to a drug conspiracy charge, but opted at the last minute to go to trial instead because the deal prosecutors offered meant he would likely die in prison.

An exasperated U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz warned Jaime Alberto Marin Zamora that the latest continuance in his case — the third — would be his last. She scheduled a trial for Sept. 26.

"That's the drop-dead date," Seitz told Marin Zamora, who was clad in tan prison garb and was using earphones so he could hear an interpreter translate the judge's words to Spanish.

Defense lawyer David Fernandez told The Associated Press after the hearing that prosecutors offered a plea deal that would effectively mean a life sentence, which is the maximum Marin Zamora faces if convicted of cocaine trafficking conspiracy at trial.

"We're not going to take a plea that would let him rot in jail for the rest of his life," Fernandez said. "We were looking for a number we could live with and my guy wouldn't die in jail."

Fernandez declined to discuss specific details of the negotiations.

As he left in a court elevator, Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels declined to comment, throwing up his hands in bewilderment at the latest developments in the case.

The judge wasn't happy, either.

"I thought the case would be resolved, but it obviously isn't," Seitz told the parties.

The 46-year-old Marin Zamora was captured at a resort off the Venezuelan coast. Marin Zamora, also known as "Beto" Marin, is a reputed kingpin in Colombia's Norte del Valle cocaine cartel. Records show he was arrested in Margarita Island, Venezuela, on Sept. 16, 2010. Venezuelan officials said at the time that U.S. authorities had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture. National Guard troops and agents from Venezuela's anti-drug force arrested Marin Zamora, who was escorted back to the U.S. by Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

The Marin Zamora capture and extradition drew praise from U.S. officials, who have often accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of weak anti-drug efforts. Venezuela has become a major hub for traffickers smuggling Colombian cocaine to the United States and Europe.

The February 2009 indictment accuses Marin Zamora of conspiring to distribute cocaine in Colombia and elsewhere over at least a decade knowing that the drugs would be illegally imported into the United States. Authorities say the conspiracy involved thousands of kilograms of cocaine.


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