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Colombia's drug cartel leader arrested in Brazil to be extradited to U.S.

Brazil's authorities announced Wednesday a leader of Colombia's biggest drug cartel who lived in a luxurious home with a gym, sauna, plasma TVs, a swimming pool and nearly US$1 million (EUR 700,000) in stashed cash was captured by the police.

Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, 44, allegedly used profits from cocaine shipments by his Norte del Valle cartel to buy legitimate businesses in Brazil, including cattle ranches, industrial property, mansions and hotels.

But now Ramirez Abadia, who is accused of shipping tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe and of ordering the killings of police and informants, could become the subject of competing extradition efforts following his arrest Tuesday in Sao Paulo.

On Wednesday, U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Mei said U.S. authorities plan to file a request with Brazil's Supreme Court soon to extradite Ramirez Abadia.

Mei said the United States requested his arrest in Brazil in late June pending an extradition request and shared information with Brazilian authorities about Ramirez Abadia. He declined to say if that information was crucial for the capture.

Meanwhile, Colombia's chief federal prosecutor, Mario Iguaran, held out the possibility he could be extradited to Colombia before heading to the United States.

"We'll have to look at various international judicial cooperation instruments to allow us to bring him to Colombia, and surely afterward the United States," Iguaran told journalists.

Any competing extradition requests that would also be decided by the Supreme Court could further complicate the case, which could easily drag on for months or years.

Brazil does not extradite foreign criminal suspects if they face a death penalty, but Mei said the U.S. case against Ramirez Abadia involves a possible life sentence and not the death penalty. Colombia does not have the death penalty.

Police said Ramirez Abadia - nicknamed "Chupeta," or lollipop - arrived at least two years ago from Colombia to oversee his gang's Brazilian investments and underwent two plastic surgeries to alter his appearance.

"His deal was to stay away from the drugs, so he could be with the money that arrived in Brazil," said Fernando Francischini, the federal police agent in charge of the investigation.

Ramirez Abadia's Norte del Valle cartel emerged as Colombia's most powerful drug gang after the mid-1990s, and the U.S. State Department in September 2004 began offering up to US$5 million (EUR 3.6 million) for information leading to the arrest of its leaders.

Brazilian media reported Wednesday that authorities arrested Ramirez Abadia after learning he might be planning to leave the country.

Ramirez Abadia was sentenced to 13 years in a Colombian prison in 1996 on drug trafficking and racketeering after turning himself in to benefit from a law that allowed him to avoid extradition by admitting to his crimes. But the law did not exempt him from extradition for crimes committed after it took effect.

According to Colombian police, he was released from prison in 2001 and then indicted along with other top members of the Norte del Valle cartel in 2004 in a racketeering case in Washington federal court.

The wealth of Ramirez Abadia once reached US$1.8 billion (EUR 1.3 billion), but he is believed to be indebted to other traffickers, the U.S. State Department said.

Francischini said police also arrested Ramirez Abadia's wife, another Colombian citizen and 10 Brazilians, and seized about US$920,000 (EUR 660,000) in various currencies. Some of the money was found in stereo speakers, Brazil's Globo TV reported. They also found a gym, sauna, plasma televisions and a swimming pool in his home.

In all police served 22 search warrants in six states and confiscated drugs, guns, bulletproof cars, jet skis and yachts, including one said to be worth US$1 million (EUR 720,000).

Globo TV said Ramirez Abadia had one request of officers who arrested him: not to be extradited to the United States.

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