WASHINGTON (AP) — A retired Colombian police general who served as chief of security for his country's former hardline president, Alvaro Uribe, pleaded guilty Monday to helping a drug-trafficking paramilitary force classified by the U.S. as a terrorist group.
Mauricio Santoyo Velasco, 53, entered his plea in federal court in Alexandria, Va.
He acknowledged aiding the far-right United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials AUC. Prosecutors say the AUC, which emerged in the late 90s, was responsible for hundreds of assassinations and kidnappings primarily funded with the proceeds from cocaine trafficking. The group was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States in 2001.
Santoyo was chief of security for Uribe from 2002 to 2005 and also had served as a top anti-terrorism commander.
He acknowledged in a plea agreement that from 2001 to 2008 he helped the AUC thwart anti-trafficking efforts by the U.S. and Colombia in exchange for bribes. Santoyo also acknowledged that his assistance included tipping off AUC members to upcoming law enforcement arrest operations, divulging information about ongoing wiretaps, informing members of investigations by Colombian, British and U.S. law enforcement, and conducting unauthorized wiretaps of rivals.
Prosecutors said in a court document that the bribes that AUC members and associates paid Santoyo were "substantial" but did not provide a dollar figure.
Santoyo, who retired from the Colombian National Police in 2009, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. He faces between 10 and 15 years in prison when he is sentenced Nov. 30. His attorneys, John Zwerling and Oscar Rodriguez, did not immediately return telephone and email messages requesting comment Monday afternoon.
Uribe's government had made peace with the far-right paramilitary militias, which Colombian authorities blame for thousands of killings, and it also extradited more than a dozen paramilitary warlords to the United States to face drug trafficking charges. Violence by paramilitary successor gangs involved in drug-trafficking and extortion persists, however, and leftist rebel violence has also increased since Uribe left office two years ago.
On Monday, Uribe tweeted that the Santoyo case "offends our government," referring to his 2002-2010 presidency, insulting "the first and only government that dismantled the paramilitaries, effectively weakened the rebels and extradited them."
The federal charges against Santoyo were unsealed in June, and he surrendered to authorities in Colombia for extradition in early July. U.S. law allows foreign citizens who are brought into the United States to be prosecuted for helping a terrorist organization, even if the crime occurs outside the United States.
The case is one of a number of international drug trafficking cases brought in the United States and part of an effort in particular by the office of U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia to increase prosecutions against international criminal organizations.
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Neil MacBride, said in a statement Monday that Santoyo's prosecution "holds accountable a rogue individual who abandoned his duty to protect the Colombian people to serve his own interests and those of drug traffickers and terrorists."
In Colombia at least one politician said that Santoyo's guilty plea raised questions about the former Uribe government. Colombian congressman Ivan Cepeda, a leftist, said Santoyo's admission of guilt invited further investigation of Uribe and those who had served around him.
"Any investigator with a clear sense of getting to the bottom of these revelations would immediately seek to find out what the relations and level of understanding and responsibility President Uribe had in this entire situation," Cepeda said.
Associated Press writer Camilo Hernandez in Bogota contributed to this report.
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