LOS ANGELES – A high-level member of a global drug ring arrived in Southern California last night after being extradited from Colombia on charges that he conspired to transport cocaine worth hundreds of millions of dollars from South America to Mexico for eventual sale in the United States. The extradition resulted from a coordinated, international law enforcement operation that has led to arrests of co-conspirators on three continents.
In conjunction with the extradition, federal authorities on Thursday arrested seven defendants named in a 22-count indictment that outlines how the organization obtained ton-quantities of cocaine manufactured in South American labs; used airplanes, submarines and “go-fast” boats to move the narcotics to Mexico; and then used various means to smuggle the loads across the U.S.-Mexico border, with significant quantities of cocaine being delivered to and subsequently sold in the Los Angeles area.
In addition to the extradition of Victor Hugo Cuellar-Silva last night and yesterday’s arrests of codefendants in California and Massachusetts, six other defendants are pending extradition after being previously taken into custody in Colombia and Thailand. Authorities continue to work to secure the arrests of a number of fugitives, including Angel Humberto Chavez-Gastelum, the alleged ringleader of the international trafficking ring, who is believed to be in Mexico.
The indictment, which was unsealed yesterday, is unique in charging high-level traffickers across the entire drug-distribution supply chain – from Colombia-based supply sources, to Mexico-based investors and transportation coordinators, to U.S.-based stash-house operators and distributors.
Cuellar-Silva is alleged to have been the organization’s top representative in Colombia, where he oversaw operations for Chavez-Gastelum, a Mexican national who has been designated by the U.S. government as one of the world’s most-wanted drug traffickers. Chavez-Gastelum’s drug distribution network controlled its own supply routes from Colombia to Central America, and from Mexico to the United States. Chavez-Gastelum’s criminal organization was also responsible for at least two killings, with one victim’s torture and dismemberment captured on a video that has been obtained by law enforcement authorities.
“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,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “We are deeply grateful to the government of Colombia for helping us bring one of the key defendants to justice. Prosecutors in my office are united with our domestic and foreign partners in the fight against drug trafficking. This case shows that law enforcement will apply all of its resources to dismantle international criminal organizations that terrorize communities both here and abroad.”
Over the course of a three-year investigation into the organization, law enforcement authorities around the world seized approximately 7,700 pounds of cocaine, with a potential U.S. street value of $500 million. Significant seizures during the investigation included:
· approximately 1,329 kilograms of cocaine recovered when a plane that departed from Venezuela crashed into the Caribbean Sea;
· approximately 833 kilograms of cocaine contained in bales floating off the coast of Tumaco, Colombia;
· more than 700 kilograms of cocaine and over 30 kilograms of methamphetamine seized from a Tijuana stash house;
· approximately 80 kilograms of cocaine seized during two operations in Azusa;
· nearly 50 kilograms of cocaine and one-half pound of methamphetamine seized in Montebello; and
· approximately 8 kilograms of cocaine, $125,000 in cash, and a firearm seized in North Hollywood.
“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,” said DEA Associate Special Agent in Charge Daniel Comeaux. “The indictment, arrests and extradition demonstrate the international reach of the Southern California Drug Task Force, and we will continue to work with our U.S. and international law enforcement partners to bring transnational criminal organizations to justice.”
“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,” said Joseph Macias, Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations Los Angeles. “I commend the government of Colombia and all of our foreign and domestic law enforcement partners for their hard work. Their support was instrumental in our joint effort to dismantle international criminal organization’s ability to bring dangerous drugs into our communities and ensure the perpetrators of such attempts are brought to justice.”
Cuellar-Silva is expected to be arraigned on the indictment this afternoon in United States District Court in downtown Los Angeles.
During Thursday’s law enforcement operation, authorities arrested seven defendants named in the indictment. They are:
· Hugo Atienzo, 55, of Azusa;
· Juan Antonio Brizuela, 29, of Lompoc;
· Richard Dennis, 54, of Studio City;
· Gerardo Mojarro, 42, of South Gate;
· Jesus Manuel Monrreal, 33, of Van Nuys;
· Jonathan Zamora, 28, of Cerritos; and
· Amparo Yokasta Melo Peguero, 44, who was arrested in her hometown of Boston.
The six defendants arrested Thursday in Southern California were arraigned on the indictment Thursday afternoon, which each entering not guilty pleas. A trial date was scheduled for November 13.
Chavez-Gastelum, Cuellar-Silva, and three other defendants are charged with participating in a continuing criminal enterprise. If they were to be convicted of just this charge, Chavez-Gastelum would face a mandatory life sentence because he is accused of being the principal manager of the enterprise, and the other four would face mandatory minimum sentences of 20 years in federal prison.
In addition to the continuing criminal enterprise and the related allegations of two murders, the indictment alleges a series of drug trafficking, firearms, and money laundering offenses. All of the defendants named in this case, if convicted, would face decades in federal prison due to the amount of narcotics involved in the case.
An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.
This investigation previously resulted in the extradition from Colombia to Los Angeles of two other drug kingpins who allegedly were responsible for orchestrating cocaine shipments by aircraft from Colombia to Mexico in conjunction with Chavez-Gastelum’s organization. Those two defendants previously extradited to the United States are both pending sentencing.
The investigation into this narcotics trafficking organization is being conducted by special agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations and IRS Criminal Investigation, which received substantial assistance from the Colombian, Dutch, Aruban and Thai governments. The investigation is being conducted under the auspices of the Southern California Drug Task Force and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force.
A number of law enforcement agencies provided substantial assistance during the investigation, including the United States Marshals Service, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Whittier Police Department and the Colton Police Department.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Carol Alexis Chen, Benjamin Barron, Ryan Weinstein, and Alexander Schwab of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.