updated 4/22/2009 4:10:28 PM ET 2009-04-22T20:10:28

One of Colombia's once most feared drug lords was sentenced Wednesday to more than 31 years in prison, after telling the judge he only sold drugs to help his people and apologizing to Americans for harming so many of them with cocaine.

U.S. District Judge Richard Berman sentenced Diego Murillo to 31 years and three months in prison and ordered him to pay $4 million in fines for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.

Human rights groups have claimed Murillo is responsible directly or indirectly for hundreds of murders and Reporters Without Borders has named him the world's No. 6 "predator" of journalists, ranking him worse than Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe or Kim Jong Il of North Korea.

Murillo, 48, a Colombian citizen, described himself to Berman as a benevolent man who used the sale of drugs to generate money to protect his people from Communist aggression. His comments in Spanish were relayed to the judge by an interpreter.

"I was the only way to counteract the vigorous advance of the Communist guerrillas," he said.

Warns against crime
After leading what amounted almost to an army, Murillo said he realized "weapons and violence were not the right way" and that the peace process offered the greatest hope. So he said he gave up thousands of weapons and used drug money to fund job programs and education for his fighters.

He apologized to Americans for harming so many of them with drugs and to Colombia as well.

"There is no political, moral or personal justification for continuing with this illegal activity that ends the life of so many people," he said, warning fellow drug dealers that their crimes will end in jail or death.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Snyder blasted Murillo's portrayal of himself, saying the United States had designated as a terrorist organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia, which named Murillo as its inspector general.

Snyder said the organization was simply a terrorist group, "just like al-Qaida."

He said the United States absolutely disputed his portrayal of himself as a freedom fighter and benefactor for his people.

Snyder said the government even had a witness who heard Murillo brag that he was going to try to show a role in the peace process in his country to prevent himself from being sent to the United States for trial.

"He sat atop a cocaine exportation empire ... he oversaw literally an army of heavily armed criminals," Snyder said.

'Numerous metric tons'
The prosecutor said the amount of cocaine Murillo imported into the United States was "numerous metric tons, perhaps filling this courtroom, spilling out the windows and doors."

Murillo's lawyer, Margaret M. Shalley, told Berman that her client was young and working for a small car parts dealer when guerrillas demanded $500 that he did not have to give them. She said they responded by shooting him 15 times in the legs, face and arm, causing him to lose his leg and most of his teeth.

She said he gained a desire to fight back against the guerrillas after a car he riding in was fired upon in 1989.

Years later, she said, he embraced the peace process and built schools and job programs, helping thousands of people gain jobs. In 2002, he worked for the election of Uribe, she said.

Authorities have said Murillo got his start as an underling to Pablo Escobar but later turned on the cocaine kingpin, leading a vigilante group that reportedly played a role in his 1993 death at the hands of a government strike force.

Later, he emerged as the new underworld power in Medellin, pacifying its unruly streets and becoming involved in the militia organization, which became a political force as it enriched itself with drug trafficking and massive land theft. The militia, known as the AUC, had at least 15,000 armed fighters and controlled entire regions of Colombia.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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