July 19, 2007 / 5:25 PM / in 10 years

Colombia extradites cocaine lord "Scratch" to U.S.

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia extradited a top cocaine trafficker to the United States on Thursday to face trial, hoping that testimony he gives will help dismantle the Andean country’s toughest drug cartel.

A handcuffed Luis Hernando Gomez, known as “Scratch,” boarded his plane wearing a bullet-proof vest to ward off any last-minute attacks from fellow traffickers or corrupt politicians who fear what he might tell U.S. prosecutors.

Gomez helped run the Norte del Valle drug organization, the last Colombian cartel to manage all areas of the business from coca cultivation to cocaine production and distribution.

He got his nickname as a young gangster who, after being grazed in the cheek by a bullet, dismissed the wound as “just a scratch.” He co-managed the Norte del Valle empire from 1990 to 2004, according to U.S. federal prosecutors.

“He can reveal just how deeply drug trafficking has infiltrated Colombia’s public institutions,” said Mauricio Romero, a Bogota political analyst specializing in illegal groups. “It is not just other traffickers who need to be afraid of what he can say, but corrupt politicians and police as well.”

Authorities say the cartel, based near the western city of Cali, has exported about 500 tons of cocaine since 1999. Colombia’s total production of the drug is estimated at between 600 and 700 tons per year.

Gomez, who says he managed 800 of the 6,000 people who worked for the cartel, is wanted on drug smuggling and money laundering charges in New York and Washington.

Authorities have Gomez’s personal computer, which he said contains files outlining his links with local politicians. He says he “managed” several members of Colombia’s Congress and also had eight town mayors on his payroll.

“That computer is going to do a lot of damage,” he said in a March newspaper interview.

Gomez, who paid right-wing paramilitary militias to protect his smuggling routes, was deported from Cuba in February after trying to enter the island with a fake Venezuelan passport.

He turned some of the trophies of his gangster life over to authorities after his arrest, including a Ferrari and two paintings he claims are originals of Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens. Experts are checking the authenticity of the pieces.

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