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U.S. turns up the heat on Colombian drug gangs
MIAMI (Reuters) - U.S. authorities are increasing efforts to crack down on criminal gangs in Colombia that are running cocaine to Mexican drug kingpins who are at war with Mexico's security forces.
On Wednesday, a Miami federal grand jury indicted Diego Perez Henao, a suspected Colombian drug trafficker alleged to be the leader of one such criminal gang, known by its Spanish-language acronym as "Bacrims."
Perez Henao remains at large and the indictment is part of an increased U.S. focus on loosely affiliated but heavily armed drug gangs in Colombia, the world's leading cocaine producer.
The groups have sprung up to fill a void left by once-powerful but now dismantled drug trafficking syndicates in the South American country like the Cali Cartel and Norte del Valle Cartel.
The Attorney's Office in Miami also announced on Wednesday it has set up a special unit to focus on combating the gangs with Colombian judicial officials.
U.S. officials say the groups are made up predominately of former members of Colombia's right-wing paramilitary groups but also include former Marxist-led guerrillas.
Together they are alleged to smuggle tons of Colombian cocaine a month to drop-off points in Central America and Mexico where much of it bought by Mexican cartels.
More than 34,000 people have died across Mexico since President Felipe Calderon sent the army to fight the country's drug cartels in December 2006, staining its image and scaring off some investors as the violence spreads.
With Colombian cartels battered by U.S.-backed counter-narcotics operations, authorities say Mexican gangs have now taken over the primary role of getting Colombian drugs into the lucrative U.S. market.
"Law enforcement's success in removing the leadership of the major Colombian drug trafficking organizations has resulted in small groups coming together to continue large scale importation of cocaine in the United States," Mark Trouville, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a statement.
Colombia has received more than $6 billion since 2000 in U.S. aid in its fight against leftist guerrillas and drug lords. But the country continues to export 400 tons of cocaine every year.
U.S. authorities have recently won indictments against at least eight other Colombian drug gang leaders and associates, with three under arrest and waiting to be extradited from Colombia.
American officials are moving to prosecute drug gang leaders in Colombia under a U.S. statute that allows for individuals to be charged with conspiring to manufacture and distribute more than five kgs of cocaine bound for the United States even if they are outside of the country.
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Monterrey and Jack Kimball in Bogota; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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