MIAMI (Reuters) - One of Colombia's top former drug traffickers, Diego Perez Henao, pleaded guilty to smuggling more than 80 tons of cocaine into the United States over the course of almost two decades, according to federal prosecutors in Miami.
Perez Henao, 42, who goes by the alias Diego Rastrojo, was extradited from Colombia in August 2013, and is due to be sentenced on June 5 when he could face up to life in prison.
At a plea hearing held before U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz on Friday, Perez Henao admitted to shipping 180,000 pounds of cocaine starting in 1994, using various transportation methods including airplanes and semi-submersibles, to Mexican cartels supplying the U.S. market, according to a statement by the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami.
"Diego Perez Henao was the kingpin of a prolific drug cartel," said U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer. "The conviction of Perez Henao concludes one of the most significant chapters in the history of the Colombian drug trade," he added.
One of the heads of the Rastrojos criminal gang, Henao was captured in Venezuela in June 2012, then deported to Colombia. A $5 million bounty was offered for his capture.
Colombia's five main criminal gangs, which have around 3,800 members, were mostly formed after the disbanding of right-wing paramilitary groups in 2006.
Many of the paramilitary units morphed into criminal gangs supplying cocaine to cartels in Mexico and the United States, making the arrest of their leaders a top priority for Washington in its battle against drug trafficking.
Colombia is one of the world's top cocaine producers, making about 300 tons a year even after U.S.-backed efforts to stamp out the illegal trade. The country's leftist guerrillas, the FARC and the smaller ELN group, levy taxes on local production of coca but deny involvement in trafficking the drug.
The coca leaf is the raw material used to make cocaine.
The government has been in peace negotiations with the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, since last November. Both the FARC and ELN, or National Liberation Army, are considered terrorist organizations by the United States and European Union.
(Reporting by David Adams; Editing by Ken Wills)