Tue, Dec 07, 2004 - Page 6 News List

US readies for cartel kingpin trial

BUSTED Colombian drug cartel head Gilberto Orejuela appeared in a Miami court while investigators mounted witnesses and evidence against him in his drug trial


Thirteen years into their probe, US investigators have assembled a team of smugglers, accountants and associates to testify against Colombian cartel kingpin Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela -- the biggest catch in the war on drugs to see the inside of a US jail.

Orejuela, 65, and his brother, Miguel, are charged with running a drug network responsible for producing 80 percent of the US cocaine supply in the 1990s.

The strategist among the founders of the Cali cartel faces an initial court appearance yesterday and an extended wait, most likely in solitary confinement, before his trial on drug, money laundering and obstruction of justice charges.

A federal magistrate was simply expected to ask Rodriguez Orejuela for his name and age at a hearing that typically lasts less than five minutes.

Defense attorney Jose Quinon said he had no plans to ask for bond.

"I feel that I'm a new man," Rodriguez Orejuela told Colombian radio station W shortly before he was flown to Miami on Saturday. "I feel innocent of the charges they are making against me and I will respond to them."

A portion of the interview was published Sunday by the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. But the drug cartel leader -- who spent nearly a decade in prison in Col-ombia before his extradition -- said he has confidence in the US justice system.

Like extradited Medellin cartel kingpin Fabio Ochoa before him, Rodriguez Orejuela can expect to wait months for trial while he and his defense team review government evidence, including testimony by turncoats hoping to shrink their US prison sentences by telling what they know about the Cali cocaine empire.

Jurors could be swayed by arguments that criminal witnesses are untrustworthy when testifying for personal gain. But prosecutors have hard evidence to support the wagging tongues: hundreds of hours of taped telephone conversations involving Orejuela's jailed brother Miguel, who is known to spend hours at a time on the phone.

With details to hide on more than 250 tonnes of smuggled cocaine, the brothers tried unsuccessfully to buy the loyalty of their closest associates by paying fellow inmates in the organization and their families, US prosecutors say.

Investigators said the 17 witnesses scheduled to testify against Rodriguez Orejuela include recipients of such payments.

Nine were named by US Customs and Immigration Enforcement agent Ed Kacerosky in a 64-page compendium of evidence offered last February in support of extradition. Eight others are anonymous.

Those ready to confront Rodriguez Orejuela include Fernando Flores Garmendia, who admitted running a Venezuelan smuggling arm that carried tonnes of concrete posts stuffed with drugs, flying drug cash out of New York and Puerto Rico and bribing Colombian political and government figures until his arrest in August 1998.

The Cali cartel contributed millions of dollars to the successful presidential election campaign of Ernesto Samper in 1994, souring relations with Washington.

Another witness, cartel intelligence chief Jorge Salcedo Cabrera, is credited by US agents with offering the crucial details that led to Miguel Orejuela's arrest. His personal accountant, Guillermo Pallomari Gonzalez, surrendered in 1995 and already has testified at three US trials. His specialty is translating cartel ledgers.

Admitted trafficker George Morales acknowledged playing key roles both in the cartel. He admitted being a cocaine distributor in Miami for the brothers in 1988, and said he helped smuggle a container filled with pumpkins and cocaine from Panama to Miami while sharing space with Miguel Orejuela's in Colombia's La Picota jail in 2000.

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