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Colombian Warlord Says He Will Face Charges In US - 2002-09-25

A rightwing paramilitary leader who the United States has accused of drug trafficking has bid his troops farewell and has said he will voluntarily go to face the charges in a U.S. court. It is still not clear when and where Carlos Castano will turn himself in.

In a letter reportedly sent to the U.S. embassy here in Bogota late Tuesday, rightwing warlord Carlos Castano said he has decided to turn himself over to authorities and go to the United States to defend himself in court. This followed an announcement in Washington earlier Tuesday by Attorney General John Ashcroft that the United States was seeking the extradition of Mr. Castano and two of his associates on drug smuggling charges.

Colombian Interior Minister Fernando Londono Hoyos says the legal process will begin as soon as Mr. Castano is in custody. He says law enforcement authorities will begin the process by apprehending the men being sought and that the case will then go to the Colombian Supreme Court where extradition cases are given final approval.

The U.S. indictment charges the Colombian paramilitary men with smuggling cocaine to both the United States and Europe. Mr. Castano has rejected such accusations in the past and has long said that he would go to a U.S. court to prove his innocence if he were ever formally charged. However, in an interview with the Washington Post in March, 2001, Mr. Castano admitted that in some areas where coca crops are the base of the economy his forces have been financed by the trade. This was a reference to "war taxes" imposed by both the paramilitaries and the leftist rebel groups on cocaine producers. Such activity is likely to be viewed by the U.S. government as direct involvement in drug trafficking.

Mr. Castano heads the 8,000 fighters of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, known for its Spanish initials AUC. The group has been accused of wide-ranging human rights abuses and is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government.

Mr. Castano began his life as a paramilitary fighter in the early 1980's after leftist guerrillas kidnapped and murdered his father. The AUC was, at first, dedicated to protecting wealthy ranchers from guerrilla kidnappings and assaults, but over time the group became a well-armed anti-insurgent force that sometimes operated with tacit approval of the Colombian military.

Colombia's new president, Alvaro Uribe, has said he will bring such illegal groups under control while at the same time pursuing a stronger military response to leftist rebel groups.

Mr. Uribe is currently in Washington seeking more support for his policies from both the Bush administration and U.S. congressional leaders.