US extradites reputed Colombian drug cartel chief

MIAMI (AP) -- The reputed kingpin of a violent Colombian cartel blamed for smuggling cocaine worth $10 billion to the U.S. was flown aboard an FBI plane to Miami on Friday to face a 12-count federal indictment.

Diego "Don Diego" Montoya, described as the notorious head of the North Valley Cartel, could spend at least 20 years in prison if convicted on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering, obstruction of justice and witness retaliation by murder.

Montoya, who did not yet have a U.S. lawyer following his extradition, was being held without bail awaiting an initial court appearance Monday.

Under Montoya's leadership, the North Valley Cartel in the mid-1990s become Colombia's dominant cocaine smuggling organization, taking over from the Cali cartel whose leaders also were prosecuted in Miami. At its height, North Valley controlled about 60 percent of Colombia's cocaine trade, authorities said.

U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said the extradition of Montoya has further crippled the cartel. Most of the Colombian cocaine trade is now split among smaller groups, with much of the profits and violence moving to Mexican-run organizations.

"I do think we're seeing a splintering and a dismantling of the cartel. But I think it would be premature to declare victory, because others are stepping in to fill the void," Acosta said.

Montoya, the last of Colombia's major fugitive drug lords, was on the FBI's most-wanted list and the subject of an intense manhunt before his September 2007 capture. He had remained free for years by paying off military and police officials and forming a private militia of several hundred gunmen.

The reputed drug lord, who boarded an FBI plane in Bogota, Colombia, wearing jeans, sneakers and a dark jacket under a bulletproof vest, began his criminal career as a cocaine lab "chef," working his way up through transport, export and money-laundering, authorities say.

"It's through the efforts of the Colombians that we are here today," said Jonathan Solomon, special agent in charge of the FBI's Miami office.

U.S. prosecutors said they are seeking forfeiture of some $1 billion in Montoya assets around the world, including luxury condominiums in Aventura and Miami Beach and an 80-foot yacht docked near Miami.

Colombian authorities blamed Montoya for upwards of 1,500 killings in his illicit career. Montoya's reign is "a tragic story, a story involving the lives of many Colombians murdered by this cartel," said Colombian police Gen. Oscar Naranjo.

The brothers who once headed the Cali cartel - Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela - are serving 30-year U.S. prison sentences after pleading guilty to federal charges in Miami in 2006. Several chieftains of its powerful 1980s predecessor, the Medellin cartel, were also tried and convicted in Miami federal court.

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Associated Press writer Cesar Garcia in Bogota, Colombia contributed to this report.

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