Martinez Escaped Arrest on U.S. Drug Charges Once Before With AM-Colombia, Bjt
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Eduardo Martinez Romero, seized in a weekend sweep by Colombian authorities, had escaped arrest last spring in Panama on the day U.S. officials announced his indictment in connection with a $1.2 billion money- laundering operation.
Martinez, described by Colombian officials as a 35-year-old economist, was indicted in March as part of ″Operation Polar Cap,″ which resulted in charges against 127 people and two Latin American banks.
″He’s one of the Medellin cartel’s financial chiefs, not the biggest one, but certainly an important one,″ Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Frank Shults said Tuesday. ″His arrest is the arrest of a significant figure in that investigation.″
Polar Cap uncovered a money-laundering operation that reached across the United States into South America and to England, with direct ties to the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia, Justice Department officials said. It laundered an estimated $1.2 billion over two years, they said.
Martinez was arrested during the weekend in the northern Department of Sucre, and Colombian national police said they started proceedings Tuesday to hand Martinez over to the United States in a test of a new emergency plan for extraditing people alleged to be top drug traffickers.
Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said the United States is moving to extradite Martinez, despite the fact that his name was not on a list of the ″Dozen Most Wanted″ drug traffickers Thornburgh sent Tuesday to the Colombian government. The list focused on the leaders of the Medellin and Cali cartels.
″We are taking steps to provide the necessary documentation to secure his extradition to the United States,″ Thornburgh said. The attorney general said Martinez is the ″only individual facing indictment in the United States that we know of who has been picked up″ by Colombian authorities.
Thornburgh’s chief of staff, Robert Ross, said later that it was not clear how long the process would take.
″The quickest thing that could happen is they could put him on a plane and send him to the United States″ without waiting for any additional paperwork, Ross said.
Martinez was among 11,000 people arrested in an emergency crackdown triggered by Friday’s assassination of a leading presidential candidate who was an outspoken foe of drug traffickers.
The Bogota newspaper El Tiempo reported Monday that Martinez declared his innocence in statements made while jailed in Bogota. ″At no time have I had links to the Medellin cartel and I don’t know any of its members,″ he was quoted as saying. The newspaper said that, when arrested, he had none of the heavily armed bodyguards who usually accompany drug lords.
On March 29, the day the Polar Cap indictments were announced, Thornburgh told reporters that Martinez was holed up in a bank in Panama, surrounded by Panamanian Defense Forces seeking to arrest him for U.S. authorities. Martinez had been scheduled to meet that day with undercover agents in Panama, he said.
However, later in the afternoon, Martinez somehow managed to escape from the bank, said Bruce Pagel, a trial attorney with the Justice Department’s narcotics section.
The Panamanian Defense Forces are headed by Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, who is under indictment in the United States on federal drug-traffickin g charges.
Martinez is described in the indictment as an associate and agent of Geraldo Moncada, whom the U.S. government accused of organizing, supervising and managing for the Medellin cartel the importation, sale and distribution of cocaine in the United States, and, in particular, New York.
According to the indictment, issued in Atlanta, Martinez was involved mainly with ″La Mina,″ or ″The Mine,″ the name the drug world uses for the money-laundering operation.
Martinez directly contracted with ″La Mina″ and the undercover agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration to launder the illegal drug proceeds of the cartel, the indictment says.
″Eduardo Martinez acted as a ‘broker’ in negotiating with various money- laundering groups as to their cost and services in laundering the cartel’s drug monies,″ the indictment says. ″Eduardo Martinez paid monies to co- defendants William Guarin and Clara Garcia to ensure that laundered drug proceeds which had been transferred to co-defendant Banco de Occidente were not seized by law enforcement authorities.″
The Banco de Occidente SA, a Panamanian institution, pleaded guilty earlier this month to laundering more than $400 million in drug money through wire transfers that government agents traced to the Medellin cartel. The Panama branch agreed to pay a $5 million penalty in a plea bargain in which the U.S. government agreed to dismiss all charges against the Colombian parent company and release $72 million in frozen assets in North America and Europe.