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Drug kingpin Ochoa gets 30 years

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 27, 2003

MIAMI - Fabio Ochoa, once a feared leader of Colombia's deadly Medellin drug cartel, was sentenced Tuesday to more than 30 years in prison for returning to the drug trade after winning amnesty at home.

Ochoa, who helped transform cocaine smuggling into a tightly run, billion-dollar business in the 1980s, was sent to prison for joining a network capable of moving 30 tons monthly from 1997 to 1999.

"In this world of narcotrafficking and what it did to this country, the defendant is one of four or five people who literally changed the world as we knew it," lead prosecutor Ed Ryan said.

The charges carry a sentence of 10 years to life in prison. Prosecutors asked for 30 years even though the defense insisted a sentence longer than 12 years would violate the agreement the U.S. government made with Colombia to secure Ochoa's extradition. The final sentence was 30 years and five months.

"It shows the bad faith of the U.S. government," said defense attorney Roy Black, who plans an appeal. "The U.S. government, despite its arrogance in refusing to follow international agreements, must be held responsible for making promises to the government of Colombia."

Ryan responded, "We feel, we believe, we are totally confident in our assertion that we have honored our agreement."

Carmenza Jaramillo, Colombia's consul general in Miami, attended the hearing and said the sentencing followed the agreement's spirit. Black said she is a diplomat and not a lawyer.

Ochoa, 46, was convicted of conspiracy in May for joining a smuggling network run by one of his former cartel underlings after serving a five-year Colombian prison sentence and getting amnesty for his cartel days. Under U.S. sentencing rules, he would be released at age 68.

"We are completely surprised. The ruling does not correspond to the crime for which he was being judged," Martha Nieves Ochoa, Fabio's sister, said. "They weren't judging him for the crimes on which he was extradited.

By treaty, Ochoa could not be prosecuted for crimes before Colombia and the United States renewed extradition in 1997. Prosecutors blame the Medellin cartel for smuggling 56 tons of cocaine into the United States from 1978 to 1985. Ochoa is one of the biggest Colombian drug defendant brought to U.S. justice.

Just before the three-hour hearing ended, Ochoa stood to address the judge, took an oath to tell the truth but sat again without saying anything other than his name. Black said Ochoa risked being prosecuted again for anything he said.

Speaking for Ochoa, Black said Ochoa was "shocked" to learn the case against him "could totally change" from the allegations listed in the extradition papers, he was "saddened especially that his extradition was sought under false pretenses," and he felt "he was found guilty by association."

Ochoa looked tired with large black rings under his eyes. He shut them for a few seconds after U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore announced his sentence. Ochoa shook hands with Black, slapped another attorney on the back and waved to some spectators on his way out.

Evidence against Ochoa included testimony by ringleader Alejandro Bernal and video and audio tapes of meetings at his Bogota office, which prosecutors dubbed "the Wal-Mart of drug trafficking."

Ochoa is credited with pioneering large-scale aerial operations by developing a waterproof box that kept cocaine dry when it was jettisoned from planes for retrieval by speed boats.

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