BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Colombia extradited Luis Hernando Gomez Bustamante to the United States on Thursday, almost six months after the reputed drug kingpin was deported from Cuba.
Gomez, whose Norte del Valle cartel is believed to account for as much as 60 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, was deported to Colombia on Feb. 8 after fleeing to Cuba in 2004 to escape a $5 million bounty for his capture by Washington.
In an interview broadcast just before his extradition, Gomez told RCN TV that at his height he smuggled planeloads of cocaine containing as much as 11 tons a night to the United States. Much of the cocaine was supplied by Salvatore Mancuso, the now-jailed leader of the umbrella organization for Colombia’s powerful right-wing militias, he said.
Gomez said Cuban authorities tried to coerce him into slandering Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, offering to remove him from a dungeon-like cell where he was held if he accused Uribe of ties to the right-wing militias, but that he refused.
Colombian authorities consider Gomez the most powerful cartel leader to be sent to the U.S. for trial since Uribe extradited brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orjuela, who led the now-defunct Cali cartel, in December 2004.
Since taking office in 2002, Uribe has extradited more than 600 suspected drug traffickers, the majority of them to the United States, which provides the Andean nation more than $700 million a year in anti-narcotics and counterinsurgent aid.
Once considered one of the world’s 10 drug traffickers most wanted by the U.S., Gomez was televised Thursday wearing a bulletproof vest and flanked by heavily armed police as a Black Hawk helicopter brought him to a Bogota air base from a maximum security prison. He was then handed over to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
, who transported him to New York, where he faces drug trafficking and money laundering charges.
Gomez was arrested with a false passport as he arrived at Havana’s international airport in 2004, setting off a delicate three-way diplomatic dance, with Colombia acting as an intermediary between the United States and Cuba to secure his deportation and eventual extradition.
Gomez said his Cuban interrogators tried to force him to slander the conservative Uribe, Washington’s staunchest ally in Latin America.
“They asked me several times whether I knew if Uribe had ties to the paramilitaries,” Gomez told RCN TV. “I was very clear and told them just like they love their country, I love mine too.”
Gomez had pleaded for a speedy extradition, saying he received numerous death threats in jail from rival traffickers who fear he will testify against them. During the interview with RCN, he cried while promising to cooperate fully with U.S. authorities in hopes of being reunited with his 2-year old daughter.
Gomez said that among his business partners during 25-years of drug smuggling was Mancuso, the jailed leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary umbrella group.
“I had a very good relation with him. I bought drugs from him for a long time, 1,000 kilograms every time,” said Gomez, who was a gas station attendant in 1991 and a year later declared property worth more than $500,000.
Gomez said he also bought cocaine from Colombia’s main leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
“We always said we hated the guerrillas, but when we had to buy drugs we bought it from them.”