Colombia president asks to stop arrest of narco sought by US

FILE- Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaks on the 100th day of his administration at the Narino Palace presidential office in Bogota, Colombia, o Nov. 15, 2022. Petro is seeking to suspend arrest orders against some of the countrys biggest criminal suspects as part of an ambitious plan to dismantle armed groups that have long dominated the countryside. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia, File) (Ivan Valencia, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

BOGOTA – Colombia's president is seeking to suspend arrest orders against some of the country's biggest criminal suspects, including at least one individual wanted in the U.S. on narcotics charges, as part of an ambitious plan to dismantle armed groups that have long dominated the countryside.

The request to suspend the arrest orders against eight members of the so-called Gulf Clan was made by President Gustavo Petro's peace commissioner in a letter dated Jan. 11 to Colombia's chief prosecutor. Among those on the list are Jobanis Villadiego, also known by his alias “Bad Boy,” who was indicted in Brooklyn federal court in 2015 alongside Dairo Antonio Úsuga, then leader of the Gulf Clan and at the time Colombia's most wanted fugitive.

A copy of the letter was provided to The Associated Press by someone close to U.S. law enforcement on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters at the heart of more than two decades of U.S.-Colombia anti-narcotics cooperation.

Colombia's top law enforcement authority on Friday said there was no legal basis for Petro's request. In a seven-page rebuttal shared with the media, the chief prosecutor's office said such requests could only be made against members of politically motivated armed groups whereas the Gulf Clan — which emerged from the ashes of Colombia's right-wing paramilitary movement — was a purely criminal enterprise.

The Gulf Clan is accused of being Colombia's largest drug trafficking organization, responsible for sending as much as 20 metric tons of cocaine each month to the U.S. and Europe.

Conservative former President Iván Duque last year extradited Úsuga to the U.S., calling him the “most dangerous drug trafficker in the world” and likening him to the feared Pablo Escobar who terrorized much of Colombia before his death in the 1990s.

Úsuga pleaded not guilty upon his arrival to the U.S. and is currently awaiting trial.

Petro has taken a different approach from his law and order predecessor. Since his historic election last year, the former leftist guerrilla has been pushing a plan for “total peace” that would include negotiating not only with that country's last main rebel group, the National Liberation Army, but also armed gangs like the Gulf Clan that continue to dominate and hold back development in Colombia's long neglected countryside.

He's also proposed shielding from extradition those willing to lay down their weapons and renounce criminal activity, a move that is bound to test a longstanding law enforcement alliance with Washington. Under Duque, Colombia extradited more than 500 individuals to the U.S.

Villadiego is wanted in the U.S. on multiple drug trafficking charges and in Colombia faces additional charges for homicide and forced recruitment of minors to commit criminal acts. Like his former boss Úsuga, he was a member of the right-wing United Self Defense Forces of Colombia who renounced violence as part of a 2004 peace deal. But he later returned to a life of crime as one of Úsuga's top lieutenants in the Gulf Clan.

Goodman reported from Miami