Federal authorities are cracking down on a massive international drug ring that allegedly conspired to smuggle millions of dollars worth of cocaine into the United States using airplanes, submarines, and “go-fast” boats.
On Thursday, notorious Colombian kingpin Victor Hugo Cuellar-Silva was extradited from Colombia to the U.S., and another seven individuals were arrested in connection with the vast drug conspiracy, the Department of Justice announced.
A 22-count indictment, which was unsealed late Thursday, details the three-year federal investigation into the organization’s coordinated efforts to bring cocaine from South America to the United States. These traffickers, authorities allege, successfully obtained “ton-quantities” of cocaine from South American labs, moved the narcotics to Mexico using airplanes, submarines, and speed boats, and then used “various means” to smuggle the illicit goods across the U.S.-Mexico border.
“This organization is responsible for the manufacture and cross-continent distribution of exorbitant amounts of cocaine, a complex money laundering conspiracy, and a myriad of violent crimes to include murder,” Daniel Comeaux, an associate special agent in charge with the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a press release Friday.
Law-enforcement authorities around the world seized approximately 7,700 pounds of cocaine—worth about $500 million—during the investigation, prosecutors said. They found 3,000 pounds of cocaine after a plane crashed in the Caribbean Sea, another 2,000 pounds in bales floating off the coast of Colombia, and 1,500 pounds in a stash house in Tijuana, according to the indictment.
“This drug ring has spread death and misery across the Americas and to other parts of the world, which makes this case among the most significant drug trafficking cases ever brought in this district,” United States Attorney Nick Hanna said in the release.
According to authorities, the indictment is “unique” in charging alleged traffickers across the distribution supply chain, from Colombia-based supply sources, to Mexico-based investors and transportation coordinators, to U.S.-based stash-house operators and distributors. The seven individuals arrested are Hugo Atienzo, 55; Juan Antonio Brizuela, 29; Richard Dennis, 54; Gerardo Mojarro, 42; Jesus Manuel Monrreal, 33; Jonathan Zamora, 28; and Amparo Yokasta Melo Peguero, 44.
Cuellar-Silva arrived in Southern California Thursday night after being extradited from Colombia. He’s separately charged with conspiracy to transport hundreds of millions of dollars of cocaine with the intent to sell in the United States.
Cuellar-Silva, who was expected to be arraigned Friday in Los Angeles, oversaw operations in Colombia for Angel Chavez-Gastelum, the alleged leader of the entire organization, the indictment says. Prosecutors pointed out that Chavez-Gastelum has been labeled “by the U.S. government as one of the world’s most-wanted drug traffickers.”
Cuellar-Silva’s extradition and Thursday’s busts led to the arrests of co-conspirators on three continents and the pending extradition of six other defendants who are currently in custody in Colombia and Thailand, prosecutors said.
“This extradition serves as a stern warning to other fugitives who think they can evade U.S. law enforcement by hiding out in another country,” Joseph Macias, special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations Los Angeles, said in the release.
A number of law-enforcement agencies were working Friday to secure the arrests of several others, including Chavez-Gastelum, who is believed to be in Mexico, according to the press release.
Six of the defendants, who were arrested in Southern California Thursday, have pleaded not guilty. They face decades in federal prison if convicted on the charges, which include drug trafficking, firearms, and money-laundering offenses. Their trial date is scheduled for November 13.