June 17, 2008 / 6:24 PM / 9 years ago

Colombian militia boss guilty of U.S. drug charges

<p>Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano (C), also know as Don Berna, arrives for a court hearing in Medellin, July 16, 2007. The former top Colombian paramilitary commander pleaded guilty on Tuesday to conspiring to smuggle tons of cocaine worth millions of dollars into the United States, U.S. prosecutors said.Pool</p>

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former top Colombian paramilitary commander pleaded guilty on Tuesday to conspiring to smuggle tons of cocaine worth millions of dollars into the United States, U.S. prosecutors said.

Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, 47, pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court after Colombia's surprise decision to extradite him along with 13 other paramilitary leaders in May.

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan say Murillo, also known as "Don Berna," was a paramilitary chief who once dominated the Medellin underworld as a leader of the United Self-Defenses Forces of Colombia (AUC). He faces up to 33 years in prison when he is sentenced December 12.

Colombian paramilitaries were established in the 1980s by wealthy landowners to defend themselves against Marxist rebels in rural areas where the state had little presence. They soon waged a bloody counterinsurgency and killed many peasants suspected of guerrilla sympathies.

U.S. authorities say Murillo was in charge of transporting the AUC's cocaine. He was considered one of the most feared men in Colombia for the AUC's campaign against peasants.

Murillo held the title of Inspector General of the AUC, prosecutors said, but was its de facto leader and in charge of shipping cocaine by sea on speedboats and larger cargo vessels either directly to the United States or through neighboring countries.

He was arrested in Colombia in May 2005 and jailed under a peace deal with President Alvaro Uribe. He was held in prisons there before his extradition, in which the United States promised it would not seek a life prison sentence.

Some U.S. lawmakers saw the extradition of Murillo and others as a move to strengthen a possible U.S. trade deal.

Editing by Daniel Trotta and Philip Barbara

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