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Last Updated:3/18/02
Press conference with Attorney General John Ashcroft, DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson and Michael Chertoff, head of the Department of Justice Criminal Division, March 18, 2002
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Good afternoon. I want to thank all of you for coming, and particularly, I want to thank Asa Hutchinson for being here with me as the director of the Drug Enforcement Administration and Michael Chertoff, head of the Criminal Division here in the Justice Department.
This morning, an indictment issued in the District of Columbia was unsealed, charging members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, with drug trafficking. The FARC is a Colombian guerrilla group listed on the State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organization List. The indictment names Tomas Molina Caracas, a member of the FARC, along with two other FARC members and four other men, including three Brazilian nationals. They are charged with conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States and to manufacture and distribute cocaine in Colombia with the intent of exporting it to the United States.

At this time, all but one of the defendants are believed to be at large in Colombia. The United States will request that the Colombian government seek their arrest and subsequent extradition to the United States. If convicted, the defendants could be sentenced up to life in prison. In addition, the United States is seeking the forfeiture of all proceeds of this drug trafficking organization.

The indictment marks the convergence of two of the top priorities of the Department of Justice: the prevention of terrorism and the reduction of illegal drug use. Today's indictment charges leaders of the FARC not as revolutionaries or freedom fighters but as drug traffickers. The world's largest producer of cocaine and the source of 90 percent of the cocaine Americans consume is Colombian. For the past two decades, the FARC has controlled large areas of Colombia's eastern and southern lowlands and rain forest, the primary coca cultivation and cocaine-processing regions in the country.

Today's indictment strikes at the heart of the terrorism/drug trafficking nexus by charging that members of the FARC created a, quote, "safe haven" for drug traffickers in Colombia.

In addition, these FARC members are charged with exchanging cocaine for the weapons and material that supported their activities.

The United States Department of State has called the FARC the most dangerous international terrorist group based in the Western Hemisphere. Since 1980, according to the State Department, the FARC has murdered 13 Americans and kidnapped over a hundred more, including three American missionaries kidnapped in 1993, who are now believed to be dead.

Today's indictment is the result of an 18-month investigation of narcotics trafficking by certain leaders of the FARC and others. The investigation was conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, working in cooperation with the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section of the Department of Justice and Colombian law enforcement authorities.

The men named in the indictment are accused of selling one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs, cocaine. Cocaine, including its derivative form crack, remains the most frequently mentioned drug in 14 of the 20 cities in the Drug Abuse Warning Network. In addition, cocaine accounted for 50 percent of all drug-related episodes in emergency rooms between 1999 and 2000.

The toll cocaine takes on the nation's health is matched only by the amount of money Americans are willing to spend to obtain the drug. Of the $62.9 billion Americans spent on drugs in the year 2000, over half, $36.1 billion, was spent on cocaine. To put that in perspective, media giant AOL Time Warner's total revenues for 2000 were just $36.2 billion, basically just about what American cocaine users spent that year.

According to the indictment, Tomas Molina Caracas, the commander of the FARC's 16th Front, doubled as the leader of the 16th Front's drug-trafficking activities.

Between 1994 and 2001, Molina and other 16th Front members effectively controlled the remote Colombian village of Barranco Minas near the Venezuelan border. From their base in Barranco Minas, according to the indictment, the 16th Front processed cocaine, collected cocaine from other FARC fronts and sold it to international drug traffickers for payment in currency, weapons and equipment. Molina and his co- conspirators loaded airplanes with cocaine in Barranco Minas. Many of these loads, according to the indictment, were destined for the United States of America.

The illegal drug use that takes the lives of Americans and diminishes our potential as a nation also fuels the activities of terrorist groups, like the FARC, that threaten the security of our hemisphere. Today's indictment is a reminder that the lawlessness that breeds terrorism is also a fertile ground for the drug trafficking that supports terrorism. And the mutually reinforcing relationship between terrorism and drug trafficking should serve as a wake-up call for all Americans. When a dollar is spent on drugs in America, a dollar is made by America's enemies.

Tomorrow I will announce the first part of a balanced drug strategy to reduce the availability of illegal drugs. Like today's indictment, this strategy will focus on the most significant organizations responsible for the supply of drugs and how we can combine the most experienced and talented federal law enforcement authorities to dismantle and disrupt these major drug-trafficking and money-laundering organizations.

Illegal drugs are both a destructive force in the lives of individuals and a destructive force to the security of America. Today we will see more clearly than ever the evil interdependence between the terrorists that threaten American lives and the illegal drugs that threaten American potential. To surrender to either of these threats is to surrender to both. The Department of Justice is committed to victory over drug abuse and terrorism, and the protection of the freedom and human dignity that both drug abuse and terrorism seek to destroy.

It's my pleasure now to introduce the director of DEA, Asa Hutchinson, for remarks. Asa.

MR. HUTCHINSON: Thank you, General Ashcroft. And I simply wanted to underscore a couple of facts.

First of all, this is the first time that members and certain leaders of the FARC have been indicted on drug-trafficking charges. Secondly, it should be noted as a requirement of the law, these drugs were destined for the United States and other countries, including Suriname, Paraguay, Mexico and Spain.

Thirdly, the drug trade used by the leaders of the FARC in this instance was a means to acquire weapons, cash and equipment for FARC operations. Tomas Molinas (sic), the 16th Front commander of the FARC, received cocaine from other fronts during this operation. Other fronts of the FARC included the 1st, the 7th, the 10th, the 39th and 44th Fronts, among others.

This represented a geographic control of a certain region of Colombia, the Barranco Minas region, which included an airstrip and was a safe haven for cocaine processing and for trafficking.

It should be noted that this investigation is ongoing. I want to express thanks to the brave DEA agents who worked on this case, both in Brazil and in Colombia. And it is our hope that this indictment will lead to the law being victorious over lawlessness in Colombia and to break up an organization that has targeted the United States for the deadly drug of cocaine.


Q You said that all but one, I believe, of the people here -- named here are at large, and I was wondering which one is not at large, where that person might be, and also, what difficulties you foresee from the Colombian government in trying to bring the others into custody, given the state of warfare that exists there.

MR. HUTCHINSON: The one who is in custody is Luis Dacosta (sp). He is in custody in Brazil.

In reference to the opportunity for apprehension, I believe was your question, certainly we believe that we'll have the full cooperation of the Colombian government and law enforcement authorities. And I think if you look in past cases of where we've had international traffickers targeted, we have had a fairly good success rate in bringing them to justice.


Q Attorney General, are we asking Brazil for Dacosta's (sp) extradition to the United States to face these charges? You said Dacosta's (sp) in custody in Brazil. Have we asked Brazil, or will we ask Brazil for extradition?

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We will want to try that individual as well.

All of these individuals are individuals that we want to try and to bring to justice in terms -- in accordance with the terms of the indictment.

Yes, ma'am.

Q General, do you foresee what U.S. forces trying to apprehend those who are not in custody, or would we leave that to the Colombian government?

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, we will have -- are requesting the cooperation of the Colombian government and would work together with Colombia to work out whatever details there are related to the apprehension of these individuals.

Q I'm just a little confused. The government of Colombia's been fighting FARC for decades. Why is it that they are suddenly going to be able to put their hands on these guys who have just been indicted?

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, I don't think we've alleged that they'll just suddenly be able to put their hands on them, but we believe that they will cooperate with us to apprehend these individuals.

Yes, sir.

Q Follow-up to the question back here: Will the U.S. military be used at all in this operation, and in what way, if they are?

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Let me just put this -- we will use every appropriate means at our disposal, but I don't want to indicate in specific that we are going to be involving the military at this time.

Q Mr. Hutchinson indicated that he thought that these indictments would or hopefully help lead us toward the breaking up the threat that these people represent. How do you get from here to there? How does the indictment move along bringing an end to their operation?

MR. HUTCHINSON: I just think it's extraordinarily significant. First of all, you have the clear allegation in the indictment of the drug trafficking activities of leaders of the organization called the FARC. I think, secondly, this sends the right message of the connection between this organization and their activities and the support that it gives for drug trafficking. I don't think you can underestimate the clarity of that message, both in Colombia and in the United States. And I think that we have such an extraordinary opportunity for enhanced cooperation, success. It's been demonstrated in Mexico. I believe the same possibilities exist in Colombia.

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Let me just comment that -- on something that the director said. The nexus between terrorism and drug trafficking is one that is clear and needs to be understood by the American people. And frankly, what the director has just alluded to is an in-fact example of how we need to underscore what the Office of National Drug Control -- drug czar's office has done with this understanding if you buy drugs, you support terrorism in the United States.

This is a profoundly important principle for the American people to understand.

And I believe this is the first time, for instance, that FARC members have been charged with drug trafficking. So it's the first time you have this kind of identification specific to the organization, the revolutionary arms organization in Colombia, with drug trafficking.

Q Why was it that the indictment was returned under seal on March 7th but made public today? What changed between March 7th and today?

MR. HUTCHINSON: Well, certainly in this type of case, there are certain witnesses that have to be protected. They have to be in secured locations. And so that is certainly a consideration as to the timing of the release of any indictment.

Q Does this somehow change, then, how we view -- clearly change how we view the FARC? I mean, they're a criminal organization in a way that we didn't believe before -- is that new now?

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: This is the first time we've had in official court proceedings an indictment of those leaders for narcotics trafficking. So we have an allegation in the official court indictment of individuals who are leaders of this revolutionary arms group, also involved in what we allege to be very substantial criminal drug-trafficking activity.

Q There were several staff reassignments at the INS last week. Barring the assistance of Congress, which you've requested, can you talk about what interim changes we might see or what you might ask for at the INS that would shore up operations there?

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, we have prepared a very substantial list of upgraded activities at INS, most of which are anchored in a plan sent to the Congress for their approval -- and this isn't a legislative approval, but it's a reallocation of resources approval -- last November. This significant list is the kind of item -- the reorganization tools to put the INS on a much firmer footing.

The president has endorsed this proposal, did so last year, with enthusiasm. We sent it to the Congress, and I believe we're making progress on that at this time.

STAFF: Last question.

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Thank you very much.

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