Published: March 23, 2006
BOGOTÁ, Colombia, March 22 — A federal grand jury in Washington has indicted 50 commanders of Colombia's largest Marxist rebel group, accusing them of running an extensive cocaine trafficking cartel that protects its operations through widespread killings and intimidation, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales announced Wednesday.
The indictment accuses the group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, of being behind 50 percent of the world's cocaine trade and 60 percent of the cocaine exported to the United States.
"We believe these men are responsible for not only manufacturing and exporting devastating amounts of cocaine, but enforcing their criminal regime with violence," Mr. Gonzales said.
The practical impact is unclear, since 47 of the 50 commanders remain free in this vast country, leading thousands of fighters in the group's relentless effort to topple President Álvaro Uribe's government. Three are in Colombian custody, and the United States will seek their extradition, American officials said.
The indictment says rebel commanders ordered their fighters to shoot down crop dusters and to kidnap and kill American citizens, in an effort to dissuade policy makers in Washington from continuing to sponsor a fumigation campaign against the coca plant, from whose leaves cocaine is made.
Some charges in the document may be hard to prove, like those linking commanders to drug operations years ago when the rebel group was believed to be far less involved in the cocaine trade.
But high-ranking Colombian government officials interviewed in Bogotá on Wednesday welcomed the indictment, saying it demonstrated the Bush administration's long-term commitment to Mr. Uribe, the United States' closest ally in Latin America.
"We see this as a recognition of the clear relationship between terrorism and narcotrafficking," said Defense Minister Camilo Ospina. "This shows that a big decision has been made to carry out the final battle against narcotrafficking and terrorism."
The indictment came just days after a coalition of pro-government parties took control of Colombia's 268-member Congress, a decisive political victory for Mr. Uribe. The victory strengthens his chances of winning re-election in May and gives him the political leverage to follow through with his agenda, including aggressively fighting the rebel group with Colombia's Washington-backed army.
With billions of dollars in backing from the United States, Colombia has sprayed much of its drug-crop acreage and carried out army offensives against the rebels. The chief of the national police, Jorge Daniel Castro, said Wednesday in an interview that the group was "in a defensive position" as a result of the military offensives and the fumigation. "We're seeing that they don't have the capacity that they had before," he said.
But the group continues to control wide swaths of territory and has been increasingly active in neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela, where it operates camps for its fighters and traffics cocaine. The group also continues to attack civilians; last month, rebel commandos burst into a meeting in the town of Rivera, southwest of Bogotá, and gunned down nine council members.
Cynthia Arnson, a Colombia expert who is director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, noted that it remained difficult to gauge whether the group had suffered big setbacks or had voluntarily withdrawn into the jungle. "This indictment," she said, "could be the beginning of an enormous political and diplomatic offensive to capitalize on whatever military momentum has been achieved."
Mr. Gonzales did not elaborate on what American officials would do to go after individual commanders but said that there were "effective options" and "they all remain on the table." The State Department said it would provide rewards of up to $5 million for information leading to the arrests of members of the rebel group's governing seven-member secretariat.
The leader of the group is Pedro Antonio Marín — better known by his nom de guerre, Manuel Marulanda — a former chicken farmer who first took up arms in the 1950's during Colombia's internecine political conflict of that era. He later helped found the rebel group, turning a peasant army into the richest, best-equipped Marxist insurgency in Latin America.
The indictment offers a look at how the group went from leveling taxes on farmers who grew coca to operating clandestine airstrips and helping to build an international cocaine distribution network. It also details the brutality used by the group to enforce its dominance of the drug trade. It says commanders ordered the killing of farmworkers who did not comply with the group's rules, in some cases dismembering them or filling their corpses with rocks and sinking them in rivers.