SAO PAULO, Brazil – The reputed leader of Colombia's biggest drug cartel, his features radically altered by plastic surgery, was identified by Brazilian and American anti-drug agents using advanced voice recognition technology, the suspect's lawyer said Friday.
Brazilian police had difficulty making a positive identification of Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia while they investigated a money laundering scheme he orchestrated in hiding in Brazil, but got a break after taping him on the telephone and passing that information to agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, said the lawyer, Sergio Alambert.
The recording was compared in the United States to other tapes of Abadia's voice, leading to a match that allowed Brazilian police to identify him so he could be arrested, Alambert told The Associated Press.
Richard Mei, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, declined comment on the voice recognition techniques but said the DEA helped in the Brazilian investigation into Ramirez Abadia.
After the positive ID was made, Abadia was arrested Tuesday in a luxurious home on the outskirts of Sao Paulo with a gym, sauna, plasma TVs, a swimming pool and nearly $1 million in stashed cash. Authorities found another $1 million buried in the garden of another home near Sao Paulo on Thursday, the lawyer said.
Alambert said Ramirez Abadia, 44, arrived illegally in Brazil four years ago and admits using profits from cocaine shipments by his Norte del Valle cartel to make investments in Brazil. But the lawyer said allegations that he amassed a business empire catering to the nation's big-spending elite are exaggerated.
"He was doing legitimate business but using money from trafficking," Alambert said.
Ramirez Abadia told his lawyer he left Colombia for Brazil because he feared he might be killed by rival drug gang members, and was not involved in any drug trafficking in Brazil. The nation is a major transshipment point for cocaine sent from other South American nations, and Brazilian domestic cocaine consumption is growing dramatically.
American officials have said they will soon file papers to extradite Ramirez Abadia to face racketeering charges, and Colombian authorities have hinted they may also seek custody of the alleged drug lord.
But Ramirez Abadia told Alambert he fears he would be killed in Colombia, and wants to serve his time in the United States.
While Ramirez Abadia initially indicated after his arrest that he would cooperate with drug agents investigating Colombia's drug exports to the United States, he has since changed his mind because he fears his relatives in Colombia would face retaliation, Alambert said.
"He told me yesterday it's not worth it," Alambert said. "He said, 'They can send me away, I'll take the blame, but it's all mine."'
Ramirez Abadia was indicted in the U.S. in 2004 on racketeering charges as an alleged key member of the Norte del Valle cartel that sent 550 tons of cocaine to the U.S. from 1990 to 2003.
Brazil's Supreme Court will decide whether Ramirez Abadia will be extradited, though Brazilian law bans sending foreign suspects back home if they face the death penalty of a sentence of more than 30 years.
Ramirez Abadia is also expected to face Brazilian charges of money laundering, gang formation and use of illegal documents while in the country, but Alambert said his client hopes American and Brazilian authorities will make a deal so he can be sent directly to the United States to serve time in prison.
Extradition cases frequently drag on for months or years in Brazil's Supreme Court, and the possibility of competing requests from the U.S. and Colombia could create even more delays.
Police said Ramirez Abadia -- nicknamed "Chupeta," or lollipop -- arrived from Colombia to oversee his gang's Brazilian investments and underwent plastic surgery at least twice to alter his appearance.
The effort by authorities to identify Ramirez Abadia was complicated by the plastic surgeries, and because he used numerous aliases, Alambert said.
The Norte del Valle cartel emerged as Colombia's most powerful drug gang in the mid-1990s, and the U.S. State Department in September 2004 began offering up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest of its leaders.
Ramirez Abadia was sentenced to 13 years in a Colombian prison in 1996 on drug trafficking and racketeering after turning himself in to benefit from a law that allowed him to avoid extradition by admitting to his crimes. He was released in 2001.
His fortune once reached $1.8 billion, but he is believed to be indebted to other traffickers, the State Department said.