Colombian Guerrilla Chief Kept Behind Bars

     (CN) - Citing "overwhelming" evidence that he helped smuggle thousands of pounds of cocaine into the United States, the D.C. Circuit affirmed a 24-year sentence for a Colombian guerrilla leader.
     Federal prosecutors alleged that Ignacio Leal Garcia spent the last decade leading the 10th Front of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a left-wing guerrilla group that has been fighting the Colombia's government for some 50 years.
     Naming FARC as the world's top cocaine manufacturer and blaming it for two-thirds of the cocaine imported into the United States, the Justice Department says the group has long engaged in drug smuggling to finance its revolutionary activities.
     After his 2006 indictment for conspiring to smuggle five kg of cocaine into the United States, Garcia was extradited from Colombia in 2010 as part of a roundup of 50 top FARC leaders.
     Prosecutors claimed that Garcia had controlled cocaine production and smuggling out of the vast Arauca Department of Columbia, which stretches some 9,000 miles along the country's northern border with Venezuela.
     During his trial before U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan in Washington, the jury heard testimony from an undercover agent of the Colombian army. The agent said he had many times purchased large amounts of cocaine from Garcia and had helped him organize 87 different airplane flights out of Colombia. Each of the planes carried hundreds of kilos bound for the United States, and returned to Colombia filled with cash, the witness said.
     Several former members of the FARC who had entered the Colombian witness-protection program, or Reinsertado, also said during the three-week jury trial that Garcia had been the 10th Front's financial leader and had managed a large drug-smuggling operation targeting the U.S., Europe and Mexico.
     The jury also viewed a FARC training video that included a still-image of Garcia, as well as a letter on FARC letterhead that was signed by Garcia, photographs of Garcia in his FARC military uniform holding an assault rifle, and a recording of radio messages in which Garcia talked with FARC members about weapons.
     Garcia was found guilty and sentenced to 24 years in prison.
     He argued on appeal in the D.C. Circuit that, among other errors, the District Court had improperly refused to let him question the former FARC members' testimony by using certain government reports. Garcia also said that the court should not have let the jury see the video and other evidence because of alleged problems with the chain of custody. The length of his sentence also came into question.
     Finding any errors harmless Friday, a three-judge panel unanimously affirmed Friday.
     "The central difficulty Garcia faces in challenging his conviction is that the evidence of his guilt was overwhelming," Judge Thomas Griffith wrote for the court. "That mountain of evidence against him renders his various arguments insignificant. Even if Garcia were right and the District Court erred in the ways he asserts, none of the alleged errors - nor even all in combination - call the verdict into doubt."
     Garcia's claims regarding the government reports he allegedly wanted to use in questioning the Reinsertados also "baffled" the court, Griffith said.
     "It is clear from the trial record that the District Court did allow Garcia to use the reports as a basis for cross-examination by asking witnesses whether they had mentioned Garcia during their intake interviews," the opinion states.
     Garcia also failed to impress with his claim that Judge Hogan should have instructed the jury to find, for sentencing purposes, that the large quantity of drugs involved in the alleged conspiracy was "reasonably foreseeable."
     "Here there can be no doubt that it was reasonably foreseeable to Garcia that the massive drug trafficking operation he managed involved at least five kilograms of cocaine," Griffith wrote. "The evidence was overwhelming. Indeed, the District Court concluded that, based on all the evidence presented at trial, Garcia was personally involved in the manufacture and import of more than 7,000 kilograms. And this, said the district court, was 'a conservative figure.' Garcia offers us no reason to think the District Court's estimate was flawed in any way."