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Colombia extradites alleged kingpin

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BOGOTA, Colombia — Alleged drug kingpin Fabio Ochoa was flown to the United States Friday night to face prosecution, the highest-profile suspect extradited from Colombia in more than a decade, a senior U.S. official said.

Ochoa, a former top leader of the notorious Medellin cartel, was escorted aboard a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration plane, which then took off for the United States.

His handover was a victory for U.S. officials who have long sought the extradition of Colombian drug lords who are flooding the United States with cocaine and heroin.

"He's on the plane. He's on his way," the U.S. official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The move comes four days before Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Bogota, to discuss anti-drug efforts with President Andres Pastrana, who signed Ochoa's extradition papers last month. Pastrana himself was kidnapped by the Medellin cartel in January 1988 when he was running for mayor of Bogota.

Earlier Friday, a judge lifted her order suspending the extradition.

Ochoa faces a federal indictment from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., alleging he was part of a gang that exported 30 tons of cocaine a month to the United States.

His family failed in a bitter fight to stop the extradition.

"Justice did not triumph, and all Colombians have lost," Martha Nieves Ochoa, Fabio Ochoa's sister, told reporters from the family's home in Medellin.

Judge Claudia Merchan had suspended the extradition on Aug. 31 on a request from Ochoa's lawyer but ruled on Friday that there were no irregularities in Ochoa's extradition that would threaten his rights.

In 1990, Ochoa was the first major Colombian trafficker to surrender in return for a promise that he would not be extradited. But U.S. prosecutors seeking his extradition say Ochoa resumed trafficking cocaine after leaving a Colombian jail in 1996.

Ochoa was arrested in October 1999 along with dozens of other suspected traffickers.

The Medellin cartel was led by Pablo Escobar, who waged a war of bombings and assassinations in the 1980s and early 1990s in order to avoid trial and imprisonment in the United States. Escobar was killed in 1993.

Under the Medellin cartel's pressure, extradition was declared unconstitutional in 1991. Colombia reinstated extradition in December 1997 at the request of the United States.

Ochoa is the best known of three dozen Colombians extradited to the United Sates since then. Some feared that resuming extradition would prompt a new backlash by Colombia's drug traffickers. Scores of judges, police officers, journalists and even a leading presidential candidate fell to Escobar's reign of terror. But this time around, retaliation has not occurred — yet.

Ochoa fought his battle against extradition peacefully — with legal appeals, an Internet page outlining his defense, and by erecting billboards in Bogota and his native Medellin proclaiming: "Yesterday I made a mistake. Today I am innocent."

The baby-faced youngest son of a prominent Medellin horse-breeding clan, Ochoa joined Escobar's drug empire along with two older brothers. When they were released from jail in 1996, the three promised to never get involved in the drug business again.

The U.S. extradition request, based largely on bugged conversations between Ochoa and another Colombian suspect, says Ochoa broke his pledge. It claims he contributed his know-how to the exporting ring and helped provide cocaine, airplanes and smuggling routes.

Extradition has long been a top U.S. priority in Colombia. American officials complain that traffickers are able to threaten and bribe their way out of justice in Colombia.

Despite years of U.S.-backed drug-fighting efforts, Colombia remains the world's leading cocaine exporting nation and an increasingly important source of the heroin sold in the United States.