ALEXANDRIA, Va. - A former top Colombian police general who was security chief for the country's former hard-line president was sentenced to 13 years in prison Friday for taking bribes from a right-wing paramilitary group that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
Mauricio Santoyo Velasco pleaded guilty this year to providing material support to a terrorist group, the far-right United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, known as the AUC. That group is believed to engage in drug trafficking, assassinations and kidnappings.
Santoyo "took bribes from terrorists — plain and simple," said Neil MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office prosecuted the case. "The quid pro-quo here was money for information — and for terrorists, information is power."
Neither prosecutors nor the defence specified exactly how much money Santoyo took during the scheme, which ran from 2001 to 2008. In court papers, Santoyo's lawyers called a claim from an informant that Santoyo was receiving as much as $100,000 a month "preposterous on its face."
The plea deal had limited U.S. District Judge James Cacheris to imposing a term of 10 to 15 years. Because federal sentencing guidelines treat terrorism cases harshly, the guidelines would have recommended a term of 30 years to life absent the plea deal.
Prosecutors indicated Santoyo has co-operated with prosecutors' ongoing investigation and that he may receive a further sentencing reduction as a result.
Santoyo had been the head of security for Colombia's then-President Alvaro Uribe, and at one point led an anti-terrorist group in the city of Medellin. During his time in law enforcement, he participated in the rescue of more than 300 hostages taken captive by drug cartels and other criminal groups. He also participated in the hunt for drug lord Pablo Escobar and was once shot in the leg during a rescue. While protecting Uribe, he suffered permanent hearing damage after a bomb exploded near him.
Santoyo's lawyers argued he was motivated in part by a desire to stamp out leftist rebel groups, including Colombia's main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces, known as FARC.
"In the mind of Mr. Santoyo, who had dedicated his career to fighting crime, he came to believe that there was no option but to aid the AUC, whom he saw as necessary in saving the very fabric of the country he had sworn to protect," defence lawyer John Zwerling wrote in seeking a 10-year sentence.
Prosecutor Michael Ben'Ary acknowledged that Santoyo served a distinguished career in many ways but said he should have known better than anyone the dangers of providing information to a group like AUC, which included tipping off members about arrest operations and ongoing wiretaps.
"AUC, while smaller than FARC, was no less dangerous, no less brutal. And the defendant knew that," Ben'Ary said.
Santoyo voluntarily came to the United States to face the charges after he was indicted, forgoing a lengthy extradition. U.S. prosecutors, especially in the Eastern District of Virginia, have made international drug trafficking cases a priority, and Santoyo's case is one of several in which foreign nationals have been charged.
Santoyo apologized in Friday's hearing for his actions.
"I recognize the mistakes I have made, and I am very sorry," Santoyo, wearing a green prison jumpsuit, said through an interpreter.
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