MIAMI (AP) – Two Colombians who headed the Cali cocaine cartel pleaded guilty in Miami Tuesday to drug trafficking and money laundering charges in a complex deal U.S. officials hailed as a major milestone in the government’s war on drugs.

As part of their plea deal – reached after months of negotiations with U.S. agencies – Gilberto Orejuela, 67, and his brother Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, 63, agreed to forfeit billions of dollars in assets linked to their drug trade. Each was sentenced to 30 years in a U.S. prison.

“The brothers’ guilty pleas effectively signals the final, fatal blow to the powerful Cali cartel,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said at a Washington news conference. “This is a day of pride for the people of Colombia and for international law enforcement.”

A separate deal will protect six of the brothers’ relatives in Colombia from prosecution on obstruction of justice and money laundering charges. That agreement also could permit 28 people with ties to the brothers to keep property and other assets not tainted by drug money.

As described by Gonzales and Adam J. Szubin, director of the Foreign Assets Control office at the Treasury Department, the 28 people will be required to turn over any assets acquired with drug trafficking. Once those assets are surrendered, the Arejuela family members could eventually be removed from a U.S. list freezing their assets and blocking them from doing business with U.S. entities.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno accepted the guilty pleas and approved the sentencing agreement between prosecutors and defense lawyers.

The brothers agreed to forfeit to the United States $2.1 billion in assets linked to drug trafficking, but the two probably made many times that amount during the cartel’s heyday in the 1990s. The forfeited assets were detailed in an 11-page list of items and included properties and businesses around the world.

But neither brother is being required to cooperate in any ongoing or future criminal investigations, according to the plea agreement.

“Are you sure?” Moreno asked Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela on entering his plea.

“Very sure,” he replied, appearing with his brother wearing pinstriped business suits instead of the usual tan prison garb. They were shackled at the ankles.

The Cali cartel became the world’s leading cocaine smuggling ring after eclipsing the rival Medellin cartel, which fell apart when several top members were arrested and Medellin top kingpin Pablo Escobar was killed in a 1993 shootout with Colombian police.

The Cali cartel was once responsible for as much as 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States. It was known for its ingenious smuggling methods, hiding cocaine in such things as hollowed-out lumber and cylinders of chlorine, even shipments of frozen broccoli and okra.

Miguel became known as “The Master” for his inventiveness in finding new ways to hide drugs, while Gilberto’s nickname was “The Chess Player” for his role as the cartel’s strategic thinker. Their family invested in dozens of legitimate businesses around the world, including the Colombian discount drug store chain Drogas La Rebaja.

William Rodriguez Abadia, Miguel’s son and Gilberto’s nephew, agreed to forfeit about $300 million in worldwide assets after pleading guilty in March to U.S. charges and agreeing to testify against his father and uncle.

The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers were convicted in Colombia of drug charges in 1995, but were indicted in 2003 in Miami on charges that they continued to run their cocaine empire from behind bars. Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela was extradited in late 2004 and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela in early 2005, the highest-ranking of more than 300 drug traffickers extradited since the U.S. and Colombia signed a new treaty in 1997.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Drug Enforcement Administration agents and others have investigated the Cali cartel since 1991, resulting in more than 100 convictions, the seizure of more than 50 tons of cocaine and $15 million in cash.

All told, the Cali cartel is estimated to have smuggled more than 250 tons of cocaine into the United States since the 1970s. A recent DEA analysis said that several Colombian organizations now control that country’s cocaine trade, increasingly in concert with Mexican organizations that distribute the drug in the United States.

Associated Press writer Michael J. Sniffen contributed to this report from Washington.

AP-ES-09-26-06 1458EDT

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