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Alleged Drug Kingpin Heads to Miami Trial

May 5, 2003

MIAMI (AP) _ Fabio Ochoa Sanchez served five years in a Colombian prison in the 1990s for drug smuggling and says he never went back to the illegal trade once he got out.

Prosecutors instead argue that he became one of the biggest Colombian druglords ever brought to face justice in America. Jury selection in his trial was scheduled to begin Monday.

Ochoa is the most prominent drug defendant brought to the United States since Colombia resumed extraditions in 1997, after stopping them for most of the 1990s during a campaign of bombings and assassinations by the cartels.

Ochoa, who turns 46 this month, could get life in prison if convicted. He has been in a Miami jail since his extradition from Columbia in September 2001.

Ochoa ``is responsible for the destruction of countless lives,″ Asa Hutchinson, then head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said when Ochoa arrived in Miami in handcuffs. ``His greed and ruthless behavior are unsurpassed, even among the most notorious traffickers of the cartel era.″

Security was expected to be so tight that the anonymous jurors will be driven back and forth to court in vans with tinted windows to protect their identities. Jurors won’t be sequestered, though their names will be kept secret from both sides.

Ochoa is accused of getting back into the cocaine business in the late 1990s after serving time for his role as one of the bosses of the now-defunct Medellin cartel, one of the most powerful and feared drug networks of the 1980s.

Ochoa served five years in a Colombian prison in the 1990s for helping pioneer drug smuggling by air. Under the extradition treaty, the United States cannot try him for any of his cartel activities, including his alleged role in the 1986 hit on drug pilot and informant Barry Seal.

The case against him is built instead on allegations he got back into the cocaine business by joining up with a longtime friend and former cartel lieutenant, Alejandro Bernal Madrigal, in an operation that smuggled as much as 30 tons of the drug into this country per month.

Ochoa has denied returning to the cocaine business, proclaiming at the time of his 1999 arrest that he would be ``stupid″ to get into drugs again. Before his extradition, he erected billboards in Bogota and Medellin declaring: ``Yesterday I made a mistake. Today I am innocent.″

Four to eight other figures arrested in the case are expected to testify for the government, including ringleader Bernal, who struck a deal with prosecutors in April in hopes of winning leniency when he is sentenced. He could get up to life in prison.

A key piece of evidence in the case against Ochoa is a tape of the only meeting between him and Bernal in Bernal’s office. But a transcript of the 3 1/2-hour Spanish conversation is open to interpretation by the government, Ochoa and Bernal.

The latest of six transcripts offered by prosecutors on the 1999 meeting calls into question whether it can even be considered a transcript.

The transcripts ``constitute the expected testimony of government witnesses who were parties in the conversations,″ prosecutors said in court papers. ``Translators hired by the government have not been able to hear all of the spoken words when listening to the recordings.″

The defense says the transcripts have gone through changes so dramatic that the latest version should be discarded altogether. Quotations previously attributed to others now come from Ochoa’s mouth.

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