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Former Colombian drug lord found guilty

Fabio Ochoa faces at least 30 years in prison.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 29, 2003

MIAMI - Former Colombian drug lord Fabio Ochoa was found guilty by a Miami jury Wednesday on two drug trafficking conspiracy charges, closing a storied chapter in America's war on drugs.

As the verdict was read in court, Ochoa dropped to his knees and made the sign of the cross.

The guilty verdict came at the end of an often frustrating and decadeslong legal pursuit of Ochoa, one of three brothers who helped found Colombia's notorious Medellin drug cartel in the early 1980s.

"We are very pleased with the verdict," said lead prosecutor Edward Ryan, describing it as "a validation of this country's efforts against organized trafficking of cocaine."

At a news conference, prosecutors also hailed the trial outcome as vindication of a much-maligned 1999 Drug Enforcement Administration investigation, code-named Operation Millennium, which netted Ochoa along with more than 32 other Colombian traffickers.

Of those, prosecutors said 29 have been extradited from Colombia and convicted in U.S. courts. All except Ochoa chose to plead guilty, most after agreeing to collaborate with prosecutors in return for reduced sentences.

But defense lawyers vowed to appeal the verdicts, saying the trial conditions were too intimidating, with an anonymous jury that was escorted to and from the court under tight security by U.S. marshals.

"That gave the impression that Mr. Ochoa was a very dangerous man," said his attorney, Roy Black, one of Miami's top criminal defense lawyers.

Black also complained that the government was allowed to use evidence of his client's past drug trafficking going back to the 1980s, although the charges related to a 1999 conspiracy. Prosecutors highlighted his ties to other violent traffickers, including the legendary Pablo Escobar, who died in 1993.

"This was by guilt, by history or association or something other than what he (Ochoa) was charged with," Black said.

The verdict came after a surprisingly quick three-week trial, during which prosecutors said Ochoa returned to the drug trade after spending almost six years in jail in Colombia in the 1990s.

The case dealt with a conspiracy to transport two large shipments of cocaine through Mexico to the United States. One shipment of 19,000 pounds was seized in Houston, and the other never left Colombia. Ochoa was alleged to have received $150,000 for his 110-pound share in the first load.

The defense tried to focus the jury's attention on a pattern of errors in the government transcripts of taped drug meetings involving Ochoa and the other conspirators.

In court, Black dismissed the government's case as "nothing but a bunch of lies," shamelessly concocted by drug traffickers to frame his client.

Despite playing only a minor role in the shipments, Ochoa, 46, now faces at least 30 years in prison. Meanwhile, many of his former co-defendants already have received reduced sentences as low as three years after agreeing to plead guilty and cooperating with the government. Ochoa's sentencing is set for Aug. 19.

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