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Thursday, May 18, 2006
Colombia, U.S. smash cocaine ring
-- nab 32

By Patrick Markey

BOGOTA, Colombia, (Reuters) - Colombian and U.S. authorities said yesterday they had nabbed a major drug smuggler and 31 associates wanted for extradition by Washington for shipping 70 tonnes of cocaine to the United States.

The three-year operation, named "Twin Oceans," led to the capture of ringleader Pablo Rayo Montano in Brazil and the seizure of $70 million in assets, including three islands off Panama, yachts, art galleries and fishing trawlers, U.S. and Colombian officials said.

"The Rayo-Montano organization had its own private navy to run a drug business that was nearly as sophisticated as a small nation," said Karen Tandy, an administrator with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announcing the indictment.

Montano was among the top 42 drug traffickers sought for extradition by U.S. authorities, said Jorge Alirio Baron, the anti-narcotics chief for the Colombian National Police.

The indictment by the U.S. Attorney office in Miami charged the 32 with conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States. Colombian authorities estimated the group shipped about 70 tons over a decade.

Rayo Montano shipped drugs from Colombia to Mexico's coastline and changed vessels for transporting to the United States and had associates in Colombia, Brazil, Florida, Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica, the statement said.

Colombia, the world's top cocaine producer, has received $4 billion in U.S. aid and training to fight the trafficking, which has helped fund 40 years of violent conflict by left-wing rebels and rightist paramilitaries.

President Alvaro Uribe, who is likely to be re-elected next week, has led the U.S.-backed crackdown on the FARC rebels and negotiated the demobilization of militia members in an effort to end the violence.

Uribe, a conservative lawyer whose father was killed by the FARC in the 1980s, has approved the extradition of more than 400 drug traffickers to the United States since he came to office four years ago.