NEW YORK – U.S. and Colombian authorities have arrested 56 people they say came from all levels of a heroin-smuggling operation, from its leaders in South America to the drug dealers on New York streets.
The $25 million worth of heroin seized in the two-year case was the largest confiscation ever during an investigation of a single drug organization in New York City, said John P. Gilbride, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in New York.
The heroin organization "operated from the darkened jungles of Colombia to the bright lights of New York City," smuggling heroin in sandals, luggage, golf bags and furniture, Gilbride said Wednesday.
Thirty people were arrested Wednesday, including nine of the organization's leaders in Colombia, U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia said. Another 26 people had been arrested previously on indictments and criminal complaints that were initially sealed. Arrests also occurred in Florida.
Garcia said the top-to-bottom effort was a "new model" for drug investigations.
"This is a significant blow to heroin trafficking in this area," he said, citing the more than 250 pounds of heroin seized and the arrests throughout the drug organization's pipeline.
The arrests, Gilbride said, were also a way to honor members of an elite anti-drug police force in Colombia who worked on the case before they were killed May 22. Colombian authorities have said 10 police officers were killed in a military ambush at the behest of drug dealers, and 15 soldiers, including a colonel, have been arrested.
The nine alleged drug ring leaders would be tried in the United States while 12 others arrested in Colombia would face trial there, prosecutors said.
Garcia said organization used sophisticated smuggling methods, including human carriers who swallowed pellets of heroin. Federal agents seized about 50 kilograms of heroin with a street value of $12.5 million from the carriers, court documents alleged.
In a criminal complaint in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, DEA Agent Richard J. Walsh said investigators discovered a heroin stash house in Queens and a Bronx heroin mill.
During a search of the heroin mill and vehicles used by the drug gang, authorities seized more than $2 million in cash, jewelry and more than 20 different stamps used to brand heroin for sale, Walsh said.
Authorities relied in part on a confidential informant who started cooperating after his May 2004 arrest, agreeing to provide information in the hope of leniency at sentencing, Walsh said.