By David B. Caruso
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — For two decades Diego Murillo was among Colombia's most feared and untouchable drug lords, accused of hundreds of murders as an enforcer for the cocaine cartels and leader of a right-wing paramilitary group.
Now, against all odds, the man known in Colombia as Don Berna is in prison after pleading guilty in Manhattan to drug trafficking charges, brought down by a U.S. probe that began with a New York City cop.
"For a long time, we never knew if we would get this guy," said NYPD detective John Barry, who was in federal court Tuesday to watch Murillo's plea. "Five years of work. All that traveling. The long hours ... It's tremendously gratifying."
Murillo entered his surprise plea Tuesday just 35 days after arriving in handcuffs on U.S. soil. Speaking through an interpreter, the 47-year-old acknowledged he had conspired with military, political and "anti-communist" forces to smuggle tons of cocaine into the U.S.
His plea agreement calls for him to serve between 27 and 33 years in prison; prosecutors, as a condition of his extradition, had assured the Colombian government they would not seek a life sentence.
The plea was a tremendous victory for a New York task force that spent more than five years gathering evidence tying Murillo to narcotics smuggling. The investigation's roots date to late 2002 when Barry first heard Murillo's name from an informant.
The snitch, a suspect in a midlevel trafficking investigation, said he had once been kidnapped by Murillo's henchmen after a load of cocaine he was moving was seized by authorities in Houston. The coke may have been gone, the kidnappers said, but Don Berna still wanted his money.
Intrigued, Barry asked federal prosecutors about him _ and got an earful.
Murillo had gotten his start as an underling to Pablo Escobar but later turned on the cocaine kingpin, leading a vigilante group that eroded his power and reportedly played a role in his 1993 death at the hands of a government strike force.
Later, he emerged as the new underworld power in Medellin, pacifying its unruly streets and becoming involved in the United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia, a group initially formed to fight leftist guerrillas that became a political force as it enriched itself with drug trafficking and massive land theft. The militia, known as the AUC, had at least 15,000 armed fighters and controlled entire regions of Colombia.
Human rights groups claim Murillo is responsible directly or indirectly for hundreds of murders; Reporters Without Borders named him the world's No. 6 "predator" of journalists, ranking him worse than Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe or Kim Jong Il of North Korea.
As a younger man, he was the target of an assassination attempt that left his body riddled with gunshot wounds. The attack cost him part of one leg and paralyzed muscles in his face, but somehow, he survived.
"The local legend," Barry said, "is that he reappeared on the streets of Medellin with a crutch under one arm and a machine gun under the other."
Working from information provided by the informant, a team of Drug Enforcement Administration agents, state police and city cops including Barry hunted for other jailed suspects willing to talk about drug smuggling networks.
The investigators pored over bank and shipping records, tracking money and cocaine as it traveled between Colombia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and New York.
By 2004, they had enough for an indictment. A grand jury in Manhattan charged Murillo with heading an organization that trafficked tons of cocaine into U.S. cities.
Getting Colombia to extradite Murillo proved as hard as building the case.
In a savvy career move, Murillo had inserted himself into Colombian politics, taking advantage of an amnesty deal under which paramilitary leaders who demobilized their fighters could get reduced jail terms and protection from extradition.
Under the deal, paramilitary leaders were supposed to confess to their crimes during hearings. But Murillo _ who by then had been jailed for allegedly ordering the assassination of a politician _ wound up admitting little.
When victims were urged to come forward, 13,000 people lodged complaints, though given his clout and weaknesses in Colombia's judicial system, few thought he would face justice.
Even his prison cell was cushy _ a suite with an office, fax machine, phones and a computer.
Then, on May 13, President Alvaro Uribe abruptly extradited Murillo and 13 other former paramilitary leaders to the United States, claiming they were stalling the peace process and continuing to commit crimes from prison.
Murillo's lawyer, Paul Nalven, didn't say why his client had chosen to plead guilty.
The written plea agreement does not require Murillo to cooperate with federal authorities, but Nalven said arrangements would be made for special prosecutors from Colombia to try to interview him in the United States about his alleged human rights violations.
His sentencing was set for Dec. 18.
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