Two Colombian nationals charged with the kidnapping and murder of an American oil worker in Ecuador have been extradited to face trial in U.S. District Court in Washington, the first time the Colombian government has allowed the United States to try any of its citizens on charges unrelated to drug crimes, Colombian and federal officials said yesterday.
Juan Luis Bravo, 27, and Henrri Jamioy Quistial, 28, made their initial court appearances yesterday in federal court in Miami on a 10-count indictment that charges they were part of a kidnapping-for-profit group that roamed the Amazon basin from at least 1997 to 2001. The group allegedly abducted foreign nationals in both Colombia and neighboring Ecuador, holding them for months until ransoms were paid.
The pair will be transferred to Washington later this week, federal officials said yesterday. They face a maximum penalty of life in prison for the slaying of Ronald C. Sander, 54, an oil rig supervisor for the Oklahoma-based Helmerich & Payne company. The Missouri native was one of eight oil workers taken hostage on Oct. 12, 2000, in northern Ecuador.
Three other suspects are being held in Colombia and also are expected to be extradited, Colombian and federal officials said yesterday. Two more suspects named in the indictment are fugitives, and investigators yesterday declined to disclose any information about a final suspect, a position often taken when the suspect is cooperating with authorities.
"We will doggedly pursue terrorists and terrorist groups who attempt to extort U.S. companies, take Americans hostage and murder innocent civilians, as long as it takes and wherever they may attempt to hide," Roscoe C. Howard Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said at a news conference with Department of Justice and FBI officials.
The hostage-taking group does not have any relation to al Qaeda, Howard said, but some key members had been part of the Popular Liberation Front, a guerrilla group that disbanded in the mid-1990s.
At least 24 Colombians accused of international narcotics trafficking have been extradited to the United States this year alone, said Luis Alberto Moreno, the Colombian ambassador in Washington, but this is the first time people suspected of other kinds of crimes have been turned over.
"These were basically criminals," Moreno said yesterday. "If kidnapping is terrorism, then these were terrorists."
The events that led to Sander's slaying began two years ago, when a group of kidnappers swept into a remote camp of oil workers in Ecuador's Orellana province.
They took 12 foreign nationals into the jungle bordering Colombia and demanded $80 million for their release. While negotiations dragged on, the kidnappers blew up an oil pipeline, killing six Ecuadorans, and later executed Sander. His body was dumped on a roadside, covered with a white sheet that bore the spray-painted message: "I am a gringo. For nonpayment of ransom."
The other hostages were freed after their employers paid $13 million.
Sheila Sander, the oil worker's widow, declined to comment yesterday when reached at her home in Missouri.