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US Announces Charges in Drugs-for-Weapons Plots - 2002-11-06

U.S. law enforcement officials have charged four men with plotting to supply $25 million worth of weapons to a Colombian terrorist group.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says undercover agents secretly videotaped the defendants as they allegedly discussed exchanging drugs for weapons that would be sent to the Colombian United Self Defense Forces, known as the AUC.

The U.S. State Department has listed the paramilitary group as a terrorist organization and officials say members are responsible for hundreds of assassinations, kidnappings and massacres.

Three of the defendants were arrested in Costa Rica and the fourth was detained in Houston, Texas.

Mr. Ashcroft says the four men are charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine as well as conspiracy to provide material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization.

"Among the weaponry the defendant's are charged with attempting to acquire are shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, and approximately 53 million rounds of various types of ammunition," Mr. Ashcroft said. "Also, 9,000 assault rifles including AK-47's, submachine guns, and sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and almost 300,000 grenades."

In a separate case, Attorney General Ashcroft announced that three men who are currently fighting extradition from Hong Kong face charges stemming from an alleged scheme to use profits from illicit drug sales to finance the purchase of Stinger missiles for the al-Qaida terrorist network.

The men, two Pakistanis and one U.S. citizen, allegedly sought to sell 600 kilograms of heroin and five metric tons of hashish to undercover agents in exchange for four Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. The Stinger is a shoulder-fired, American-made weapon effective in attacking low-flying aircraft.

The indictment alleges the defendants were planning to sell the missiles to members of al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Mr. Ashcroft says both cases are a reminder of what he called "the toxic combination of drugs and terrorism and the threats they can pose to national security."

"Terrorism and drug trafficking thrive in the same conditions," he said. "They feed off each other. They support each other. This afternoon the citizens of our country are safer. Our citizens are more secure because a group of dedicated public servants has broken the link, in two instances at least, between terrorism and drug trafficking."

U.S. officials have long believed that drug sales, especially heroin and opium from Afghanistan's huge poppy fields, could help fund al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

The defendants in both cases, if convicted, face sentences of up to life in prison.