NATIONAL NEWS

Brother of powerful Colombian senator pleads guilty in New York to narcotics smuggling charge

Jan 2, 2024, 12:46 PM

New York (AP) — The brother of a powerful leftist senator in Colombia pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal narcotics charges as part of a sting in which he offered to introduce U.S. drug informants to dissident guerrillas who could help smuggle huge quantities of cocaine to New York.

Álvaro Córdoba, dressed in prison garb, pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court to a single count of conspiring to send 500 grams or more of cocaine into the U.S. He will be sentenced to a mandatory five years and prison but could also face more than two decades behind bars. His plea does not contain any promise to cooperate with law enforcement.

“I knew that the cocaine would end up in the United States and I knew what I was doing was wrong,” Córdoba, who will be sentenced in April, told Judge Lewis J. Liman.

Córdoba, 64, was arrested in Medellin, Colombia, in 2022 and extradited to the U.S. almost a year ago by President Gustavo Petro, who was elected with the support of Córdoba’s sister, Sen. Piedad Córdoba. The case was something of a minefield for Petro, given his historic ties to the left as a former rebel himself and his newfound role as commander in chief of security forces that have long served as the U.S.’s caretaker in fighting narcotics smuggling in the South American nation.

For decades, Piedad Córdoba has been a harsh U.S. critic in deeply conservative Colombia who promoted peace with rebel groups, closer ties to Venezuela’s socialist government and more support for traditionally overlooked Afro-Colombian communities.

While prosecutors have not accused the senator of any involvement in the drug conspiracy, her brother’s court-appointed attorney, John Zach, suggested in an October hearing that agents for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration instructed informants to target the politician. And the senator herself likened the sting against her and her brother to the manhunt decades ago that brought down Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar.

But her complaints of “political persecution” fell on deaf ears, with Petro signing off on Córdoba’s extradition shortly after he was elected. Petro’s decision was taken as a hopeful sign in Washington, which has relied on Colombia’s support for more than two decades to limit the supply of cocaine entering the U.S. More recently, however, Petro has lambasted the U.S.-led war on drugs.

Zach declined to comment. The Associated Press sent an email requesting comment to Sen. Córdoba.

Although much of the U.S. case against Córdoba remains sealed, Colombian court records from his attempt to block extradition show that a DEA confidential source approached Córdoba saying that he was looking for protection inside Colombia to smuggle as much as 3 tons (2.7 metric tons) of cocaine per month through Mexico to New York.

Córdoba then put the source in touch with an associate who said he had a large amount of “chickens” — allegedly a coded reference to cocaine, the Colombia court records show.

Córdoba also allegedly offered to make arrangements for the DEA source to visit a clandestine camp in southern Colombian jungles where 300 guerrillas armed with surface-to-air missiles and other weapons would supply and provide safe passage for the narcotics. The rebel unit was run by a holdout commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who refused to go along with a 2016 peace deal that Piedad Córdoba helped broker.

Right before Christmas in 2021, Córdoba and an associate allegedly delivered to the confidential source and an undercover Colombian official a 5-kilo (11-pound) sample of cocaine in exchange for $15,000. A few months later, Córdoba was arrested. After being extradited to New York, additional weapons charges against Córdoba were dropped.

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Goodman reported from Miami. Follow him on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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Brother of powerful Colombian senator pleads guilty in New York to narcotics smuggling charge