An alleged kingpin of a global drug ring is in federal custody in Los Angeles after being extradited from Colombia on charges he conspired to bring millions of dollars worth of cocaine from South America to Mexico for eventual sale in the United States, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced Friday.
The extradition late Thursday of Victor Hugo Cuellar-Silva resulted from a coordinated, international law enforcement operation that has led to arrests of co-conspirators on three continents, federal prosecutors said. Federal authorities also arrested seven defendants named in a 22-count indictment filed in Los Angeles that alleges 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.
Significant quantities of cocaine were delivered to and subsequently sold in the Los Angeles area, prosecutors said. In addition to the extradition of Cuellar-Silva and Thursday's arrests of co-defendants in California and Massachusetts, six other defendants are pending extradition after being taken into custody in Colombia and Thailand, according to prosecutors.
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, believed to be in Mexico. The indictment, unsealed Thursday, 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, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
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, prosecutors said. Federal prosecutors allege that Chavez-Gastelum's drug distribution network controlled its own supply routes from Colombia to Central America, and from Mexico to the United States.
Prosecutors also contend that Chavez-Gastelum's alleged criminal organization also was 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," U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said. "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, law enforcement authorities around the world seized about 7,700 pounds of cocaine, with a potential U.S. street value of $500 million, prosecutors allege.
Significant seizures during the investigation included:
-- about 3,000 pounds of cocaine recovered when a plane that departed from Venezuela crashed into the Caribbean Sea;
-- about 2,000 pounds of cocaine contained in bales floating off the coast of Tumaco, Colombia;
-- more than 1,500 pounds of cocaine and over 65 pounds of methamphetamine seized from a Tijuana stash house;
-- about 175 pounds of cocaine seized during two operations in Azusa;
-- nearly 110 pounds of cocaine and one-half pound of methamphetamine seized in Montebello; and
-- more than 15 pounds 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 Daniel Comeaux, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration associate special agent in charge. "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."
During Thursday's 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.
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, according to federal prosecutors.
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, 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," 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."
This investigation previously resulted in the extradition from Colombia to Los Angeles of two other drug shot callers 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, prosecutors said.