Colombia extradites drug suspect to the United States

BOGOTA, Colombia - Colombia extradited a suspected cocaine smuggler to the United States on Thursday, the second time President Andres Pastrana has sent one of his countryman to stand trial abroad.

Orlando Garcia, an alleged member of a gang that shipped cocaine to the United States, departed Bogota's international airport on a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration plane for New York.

He was escorted onto the tarmac by some 200 police officers.

The 47-year-old faces a New Jersey indictment for allegedly shipping 230 pounds of cocaine into the United States, Colombian officials said.

Seeking improved ties with Washington, Pastrana has resumed extraditions from Colombia after a decade-long hiatus. A heroin suspect Pastrana sent to the United States in November was the first Colombian extradited since 1990.

U.S. officials have long complained that Colombia's corruption-riddled justice system is incapable of handing down tough sentences.

Thursday's extradition comes just two weeks after the U.S. Congress approved a $1.3 billion aid package for battling narcotics traffickers and leftist rebels who protect the drug trade in Colombia.

In Washington, White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey saluted the extradition as ''a dramatic breakthrough, an example of Colombian democracy and the process working well.''

Garcia was arrested in February 1999 along with 18 alleged members of a smuggling ring dubbed ''Los Niches'' that shipped out the cocaine through the western port of Buenaventura.

The gang's purported kingpin, Jorge Asprilla, remains in prison - one of at least 50 Colombians facing U.S. extradition requests.

Among those battling their handover in Colombian courts is Fabio Ochoa, a former top leader of the Medellin cartel led by the late Pablo Escobar.

Ochoa was one of 30 people arrested last October in Operation Millennium, a sweep against a drug gang suspected of shipping as much as 30 tons of cocaine monthly to the United States via Mexico.

In extraditing nationals, Pastrana is braving a possible terrorist backlash.

A powerful car bomb thought to have been placed by drug traffickers went off in Bogota just days before Pastrana extradited the heroin suspect last November, killing eight bystanders.

The explosion revived terrible memories of Escobar's heyday in the late-1980s, when the cartels set off bombs and assassinated scores of people in a successful campaign to discourage extradition.


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