Reputed Colombian cocaine kingpin Diego Montoya pleads guilty to drug charges

Colombian drug kingpin pleads guilty in Fla.

MIAMI — The boss of a Colombian cocaine cartel that smuggled some $10 billion worth of cocaine into the U.S. pleaded guilty Tuesday to drug charges that will send him to prison for at least 10 years.

Diego “Don Diego” Montoya Sanchez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import cocaine, racketeering conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The charges carry a minimum 10 year sentence, but prosecutors will recommend he spend 45 years in prison.

As part of a deal, prosecutors consolidated indictments in Miami and Washington and Montoya pleaded guilty to three of the 15 charges he faced.

According to authorities, the North Valley cocaine cartel Montoya headed was responsible for exporting more than 1.2 million pounds of cocaine into the United States from 1990 to 2004. At one point Montoya was on the FBI’s most wanted list, and Colombian authorities blame him for some 1,500 drug-related killings.

Montoya, 48, appeared in court wearing ankle shackles and a prison-issued beige shirt and brown pants. He listened to Spanish interpretations of the proceedings on a headset and made a brief statement.

He thanked the judge for allowing him to start a “new chapter” in his life, apologized to his relatives and other families he had hurt, as well as the governments of the United States and Colombia.

“Thank you and may God accompany my steps so that I can make amends,” he said.

Montoya’s lawyer, William Clay, said the government’s evidence was “extremely convincing” and “virtually indefensible.”

The obstruction of justice charge stemmed from Montoya’s involvement in the 2003 death of a longtime associate, Jhon Jairo Garcia Giraldo or “Dos Mil.” According to the statement of facts read in court, Montoya feared Garcia was cooperating with U.S. officials and ordered he be abducted and interrogated. In doing so, he knew Garcia would be killed. Garcia denied being an informant but he was beaten to death, and his body was dismembered and parts thrown in a river.

As part of the plea agreement, Montoya will be partially responsible for paying restitution for the killing. He also faces other possible fines.

In a statement, prosecutors called the case a milestone.

“We will continue to focus our energy, and the expertise of our prosecutors, to help our law enforcement partners stem the tide of drugs flooding our streets and poisoning our society,” said acting Miami U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sloman.

The FBI estimates that at its height the North Valley cartel controlled about 60 percent of the cocaine exported from Colombia to the United States. Beginning in the early 1990s the cartel took over the trade following the demise of the earlier Cali and Medellin cartels. At first, Montoya’s laboratories produced cocaine, but he later expanded into shipping, using airplanes and later boats.

Montoya was captured in Colombia in September 2007 after an intense manhunt. He was found hiding under leaves in a creek bed near a ranch and extradited to the U.S. in December 2008. An extradition treaty between Columbia and the U.S., however, prohibits Montoya from being sentenced to life in prison.

U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga scheduled sentencing for Oct. 21.

Montoya’s two brothers have previously pleaded guilty to U.S. drug charges. Eugenio Montoya Sanchez, who handled the cartel’s finances and money-laundering work, is serving 30 years and also pleaded guilty to involvement in Garcia’s murder. Juan Carlos Montoya Sanchez was sentenced to 22 years.

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