High-Tech FBI Sting Leads to Charges Against 93 U.S. Drug Traffickers
MIAMI (AP) _ More than 90 top U.S. drug middlemen were indicted Tuesday based on evidence from a sting operation in which an undercover FBI company sold traffickers radios, navigational beacons and other high-tech equipment.
Tapes and other evidence from the operation led to drug indictments in Miami and Tampa against 93 people. About five tons of cocaine, 100 tons of marijuana and some heroin also was confiscated, FBI Director Williams Sessions announced in Washington.
″We believe that this case, because of the positions and large numbers of those charged and arrested, will have a significant impact on the ability of these cartels to continue to import drugs into the United States and abroad,″ the FBI director said.
By Tuesday afternoon about half of those charged were in custody in various cities around the country, including Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, Tampa and Miami, the FBI said.
Among those arrested were two former Miami police officers who had been out on bond while awaiting trial in a previous drug case, and popular salsa performer Raul Alfonso. Alfonso, 39, the lead singer of the Miami-based recording group ″Hansel and Raul,″ was the only one of those arrested in Miami to be released on bond.
The 17-month operation, nicknamed ″Cat-Com″ for Catch Communications, was built around a Hialeah, Fla. company called RA Communications & Computers Inc. set up by the FBI.
The company sold all types of communications and computer equipment, including cellular telephones, and even offered de-bugging services to its trusting clients, said Miami U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen.
″The traffickers were hiring undercover agents ... to sweep their premises, little-be-known to them that the feds were checking to see whether or not the feds were bugging them,″ Lehtinen said.
William E. Perry, head of the Miami FBI office, said RA Communications sold state-of-the-art equipment to the traffickers and soon was arranging communications to allow the traffickers to talk directly by high-band radio to their smuggling ships and their bosses in Colombia.
The traffickers, whom Perry called ″top-of-the-line″ U.S. contacts for drug lords Pablo Escobar Gaviria, Jorge Luis Ochoa Vasquez and Jose Gonzalo Rodrigues Gacha, soon were basing their smuggling operations out of the Hialeah company, unaware that cameras and tape machines were recording their conversations.
RA Communications ″essentially was used as a clubhouse or a meeting place for first-line drug traffickers associated with the Medellin and Cali Cartels,″ Perry said.
The FBI and other agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs Service, Coast Guard and local law enforcement, had to walk a thin line because they needed to keep the traffickers’ confidence while enforcing the U.S. policy of not allowing any drugs to enter the country, even in an undercover operation.
″So they would creatively stop or seize the load, but do it in such a way that would not alert the trafficking indivuiduals that the evidence must have been accumulated through that operation,″ Lehtinen said.
U.S. naval warships and U.S. Coast Guard cutters acted on information provided by the FBI undercover operation to interdict vessels carrying the drugs headed for the United States from South America.
The seizures occurred in Mexico, Florida, and other locations, on land and at sea.
In one instance, a sailboat containing nearly 900 pounds of cocaine from Colombia was piloted by FBI sources hired by the drug traffickers. The FBI had planned to seize the drugs covertly and tell the traffickers that the sailboat had sunk with the crew lost at sea.
When bad weather hit, however, the Coast Guard interceded, rescuing the FBI and civilian personnel aboard and recovering the cocaine. The boat sank.