Two right-wing paramilitary warlords extradited with 12 others from Colombia in May amid great fanfare were last night ordered to spend decades behind US bars after pleading guilty to roles in a far-reaching cocaine smuggling conspiracy.
US District Judge K. Michael Moore imposed the maximum sentences under federal guidelines on 60-year-old Ramiro Vanoy Murillo and Francisco Javier Zuluaga Lindo, 38, even though prosecutors recommended lesser sentences.
Vanoy Murillo was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison and Zuluaga Lindo to just under 22 years. They are the first of 14 warlords extradited in May to be sentenced to federal prison.
The men were leaders of Colombia's right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym AUC. The AUC has been blamed for hundreds of killings, kidnappings and other crimes considered some of the worst atrocities of Colombia's long-running civil conflict.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said the 14 were sent to face US justice because they were still committing crimes from inside Colombian prisons and had not paid restitution to their victims. They were yanked from their cells May 12 and flown as a group to the US in a top-secret operation that surprised even prosecutors working to document paramilitary crimes in Colombia.
The US charges did not mention Colombian violence. Authorities focused on attempts by Vanoy Murillo, Zuluaga Lindo and many others to smuggle an estimated 20 tons of cocaine into the United States from December 1997 to November 1999.
In court yesterday, Vanoy Murillo expressed "my remorse, my repentance" and again admitted his guilt.
"I am here to accept responsibility for my actions," he said in Spanish, according to a court interpreter.
Zuluaga Lindo also said he was ready to accept Moore's sentence.
US Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said the two were initially jailed Aug. 16, 2006, on Colombia arrest warrants issued at the request of US authorities.
US prosecutors said Vanoy Murillo, also known as "Cuco," was a former commander of an AUC wing known as the "Bloque Mineros" — "Miners Bloc" in English — financed mainly by cocaine trafficking. Prosecutors said the group controlled many airstrips and cocaine production facilities in Colombia and provided security for other smugglers.
Zuluaga Lindo, a large man nicknamed "El Gordo" — or "The Fat One" — disarmed with his group in August 2005. The moves were supposed to have protected them from extradition to the US and assure them lesser prison terms in Colombia, in return for publicly confessing their crimes.
In Colombia, authorities described Vanoy as a veteran drug trafficker and an ally in the 1980s of Colombia's most famous narco, Pablo Escobar. Vanoy had commanded an irregular army of some 1,000 men in a region where the paramilitaries killed hundreds, they said.
Zuluaga Lindo is among drug traffickers who are believed to have paid millions of dollars for a paramilitary "franchise" so they could later take advantage of a government amnesty program that offered reduced sentences, those officials said. Zuluaga told Colombian prosecutors he was part of the AUC's political and financial wing and had no part in and did not order any killings.
One other AUC member extradited in May — 47-year-old Diego Murillo — has pleaded guilty in New York federal court and is awaiting sentencing in December. The others are being prosecuted in Tampa, Washington and Houston.
The Miami guilty pleas grew out of a huge federal investigation known as "Operation Millenium" that since 1999 has resulted in 38 convictions of drug traffickers and money launderers operating out of Colombia and also Mexico.
The AUC was created two decades ago by landowners and cocaine cartels to battle leftist rebels who held sway over much of Colombia's countryside, though it quickly morphed into one of the country's biggest drug-trafficking organizations.
Colombia's civil conflict is now in its fifth decade. More than 30,000 paramilitary fighters have demobilized since 2003 as part of a peace effort that saw many warlords surrender to the Colombian government.