By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The former leader of a violent Colombian drug cartel was sentenced on Tuesday to 25 years in a U.S. prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to import massive amounts of cocaine into the United States.
Ericson Vargas Cardona, 42, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in Manhattan, after pleading guilty last April of conspiring to traffic in cocaine and using a semiautomatic assault weapon in the process.
Vargas, who authorities said by the time of his capture by Colombian authorities in 2012 had risen to the top of the leadership of the drug cartel La Oficina de Envigado, said he had only himself to hold responsible for why he was in court.
Speaking through a translator, and clad in tan jail clothing, Vargas, who was extradited from Colombia in 2013, said that in the years since his capture, he had "come to be happy that life has come to an end."
Prosecutors said that from 2000 to 2012, Vargas was a member of La Oficina, which began as a debt collection agency associated with the paramilitary organization United Self-Defenses Forces of Colombia.
Authorities said La Oficina collected debts for drug traffickers and invested in drug shipments before eventually producing cocaine independently, and also engaged in systemic bribery of Colombian officials and violence.
Prosecutors said Vargas began working for La Oficina by stealing cars and eventually became an assassin.
He continued to rise through its ranks, and after his predecessor surrendered to authorities in 2009, became its leader, prosecutors said.
"Armed with machine guns, explosives, and a grenade launcher, Vargas Cardona distributed his drugs all over the world, including the United States," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.
Vargas' capture followed a lengthy manhunt that ended at a farm prosecutors said was used to store an arsenal of weapons and explosives, including 69 bars of C4 explosives, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and machine and sub-machine guns.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Bernard Orr)