VIRGINIA

Mauricio Santoyo Velasco appears in Alexandria court

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) - A high-profile former Colombian general made his initial appearance Thursday in a U.S. court to answer charges that he took bribes over the course of nearly a decade to assist his country's drug gangs.

Mauricio Santoyo Velasco served as security chief for his country's then-president, Alvaro Uribe, from 2002 through 2005 and was also commander of an anti-terrorism unit in Medellin in the late 1990s.

But U.S. prosecutors say he took a series of bribes from 2000 through 2008 that thwarted anti-trafficking efforts in the U.S. and Colombia.

At an initial hearing in U.S. District Court, defense lawyer John Zwerling waived his client's right to a detention hearing. He said that even if his client were freed from criminal confinement, he would immediately be detained by immigration authorities.

Zwerling said after Thursday's hearing that if his client can obtain some form of visa, he might then seek a bail hearing so Santoyo could be free while he awaits trial.

Santoyo will be formally arraigned on Friday, and Zwerling said his client will plead not guilty. Zwerling declined to discuss the case in detail, saying he has not yet been able to review evidence and so far has had only brief discussions with Santoyo.

Santoyo's Florida-based attorney, Oscar Rodriguez, was traveling Thursday and not immediately available for comment. Prosecutor Michael Ben'Ary declined comment after Thursday's hearing.

He told the judge that the government wants Santoyo detained pending trial. The federal charges against Santoyo were unsealed last month, and on Tuesday he surrendered to authorities in Colombia for extradition.

Thursday's hearing in Alexandria drew a large contingent of Spanish-language media. Specifically, the drug-trafficking conspiracy charge against Santoyo alleges that he tipped off traffickers to investigations and wiretaps, brought in corrupt officers under his command and conducted his own wiretaps to collect information helpful to the traffickers.

In exchange, Santoyo allegedly received "substantial bribes." One of the groups Santoyo is accused of helping is known as the AUC, or the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a far-right paramilitary group that was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

According to the indictment, the AUC was responsible for hundreds of assassinations.

The indictment alleges that AUC and other trafficking groups aided by Santoyo brought multiple tons of cocaine into the U.S. The case against Santoyo is one among an increasing trend at the Justice Department, and especially in the office of U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Neil MacBride, to prosecute international drug trafficking cases by arresting foreign nationals operating outside the U.S.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, which said last year that it has agents in 66 countries working international cases, has said prosecutions like these reflect a conscious effort to target traffickers in their home countries.

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