Cocaine connection: wealth, violence, drugs and Colombia

Colombian drug traffickers are emerging as a new and powerful force among organized crime groups operating in the United States. These big-time cocaine dealers are not as structured as traditional La Cosa Nostra crime families patterned after the Sicilian Mafia. But they have emerged as the richest -- and most ruthless -- of the large-scale operators, said to be servicing the estimated $70 billion illicit narcotics industry in the US.

For a handful of wealthy and influencial Colombians, organized crime has never been more lucrative.

In the past decade the Colombian underworld has graduated from smuggling stolen cars and refrigerators from North to South America, into a multibillion-dollar criminal cartel trafficking in a snow-white narcotic worth several times its weight in gold on the streets of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

``Many of these organizations are doing business in the area of $200 million to $1 billion a year,'' says Anthony Senneca of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently completed an in-depth study of the growing influence of the Colombian crime families. It pointed up the need for a new approach by federal authorities to successfully battle Colombian-based organized-crime groups.

Law enforcement efforts have been hampered by the Colombian underworld's powerful combination of extreme wealth and the use of extreme violence. In addition, because the bosses are based in a foreign country, US officials have greater difficulty in watching them, gathering evidence, and finally gaining approval to have the charged suspect extradicted to the US to stand trial.

The extradition process has become an added buffer for the Colombian bosses, granting them a protection not enjoyed by the major La Cosa Nostra bosses in the US.

Law enforcement officials say that virtually all of the major cocaine traffickers in Colombia have been indicted in the US. The trick now, they say, is how to get them here to stand trial.

Extradition requests are clouded by political considerations within Colombia, officials say. They note that the Colombian bosses have regularly invested their illicit profits in certain political campaigns at the local, regional, and national level in Colombia.

Nonetheless, in recent years the government of Belisario Betancur has stepped up its cooperation with US law enforcement and begun its own crackdown on drug trafficking.

Law enforcement officials maintain that the Colombian traffickers have a stranglehold on the American cocaine market, supplying 70 to 80 percent of all cocaine sold in the US. They note that unlike the Sicilian Mafia's heroin rings, the Colombians have an organization that extends beyond wholesale deals, thus reaping higher retail profits for the bosses back in Colombia.

``The Colombians have their own people and control the operation through the first and second distribution levels,'' says Richard Bly of the DEA's office of intelligence. ``They are getting a bigger piece of the pie.''

Colombian cocaine profits have been so lucrative that the money itself has become a problem for them. A federal crackdown on money laundering by banks and other financial institutions in south Florida and New York has prompted some traffickers to pack the US greenbacks in cardboard boxes and fly them out in private aircraft.

Bulk can, however, be a problem for the traffickers, experts say. Six million dollars in street money ($10s and $20s) weighs roughly 600 pounds. Earlier this year federal authorities intercepted a jet in south Texas with a cargo of $6 million in cash. The cash was reportedly bound for a bank in Panama, one of several bank havens of choice for Colombian traffickers, US officials say.

``Our favorite one this year was a big fat Care Bear (toy stuffed animal) that had been slit open and about 150 grand ($150,000) had been stuffed inside the bear,'' says Bonnie Tischler, director of the US Customs Service's Financial Investigations Division.

``We have really started to see large amounts of cash going outbound,'' Ms. Tischler says.

US officials say the Colombian bosses do not appear to be interested in expanding beyond cocaine smuggling into the traditional Mafia areas of labor racketeering, prostitution, gambling, or infiltration of legitimate businesses in the US.

``The Colombians are pretty much just dope peddlers,'' says Mr. Senneca, adding, ``and they have become the world's experts at it.''

Like the US Mafia, the Colombian underworld is organized in criminal ``families'' of blood relatives and trusted associates. US officials say there are at least eight major cocaine trafficking families. Among the alleged bosses in Colombia: Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, Carlos Enrique Lehder-Rivas, Jorge Luis Ochoa-Vasquez, and Manuel Antonio Garces-Gonzalez.

What really distinguishes the Colombians in the underworld, say intelligence analysts, is the indiscriminate and bloodthirsty manner in which their enforcers (hired assassins) do their work.

They are called ``cocaine cowboys.'' Their weapon of choice is the deadly MAC-10 -- with silencer.

``If the boss in Colombia decides something is not going right in a certain area of the United States -- somebody has stolen something or they are not producing properly -- they will make a decision in Colombia to kill this guy and they will send a couple of assassins to kill him. It is that simple,'' says the DEA's Senneca.

Jack Gregory of the DEA adds, ``The La Cosa Nostra is usually very particular in the retaliation they take against a particular person, but the Colombians would not only kill the person who erred but his wife, the children, the grandmother, the brother, the dog, and the cat.''

``Miami Vice is not that exaggerated,'' says Mr. Bly. The show regularly depicts Colombian traffickers as shadowy, wealthy, influencial psychopaths who shoot first and ask questions later. Last of a series. Other articles ran Dec. 18 and 19.

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