Investigators Seize 52 Tons of Cocaine in Colombian-Based Drug Cartel Bust

One of the world's most hunted drug traffickers was among the 100 people arrested after a three-year investigation targeting an international Colombia-based drug cartel, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced Wednesday.

About 52 tons of cocaine, 22 pounds of heroin, 770 pounds of marijuana and nearly $70 million in assets also were seized during simultaneous raids in the United States and Latin America. Officials in nine countries — Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Mexico and the United States — were involved in the operation. Investigators also uncovered and dismantled the wholesale drug distributors throughout local communities.

"It's estimated the amount of cocaine supplied by this organization was enough to poison 37 million consumers," Colombia's anti-narcotics police said in a statement.

"Operation Twin Oceans" targeted the Pablo RAYO-Montano drug trafficking organization, a cocaine ring responsible for smuggling more than 15 tons of cocaine per month from Colombia to the streets of the United States and Europe, according to DEA officials.

The cartel's leader, Colombian-born Pablo Rayo Montano, had been on the run for a decade. He has lived in Sao Paulo for the past three years and was arrested by the Sensitive Investigations Unit of the Brazilian Federal Police in Sao Paulo, Brazil, at his home early Tuesday morning. DEA officials said the United States would seek to extradite Montano.

Of the more than 30 arrests Tuesday, six were in the United States, including one in Los Angeles in which a federal agent posed as a pizza deliveryman, a DEA official said on condition of anonymity. Four people were arrested in Miami and one in Indianapolis.

As part of the drug bust, three islands off the coast of Panama that are personally owned by the RAYO-Montano organization were seized, along with yachts, fishing trawlers, art galleries, the largest fishing and boating store in Panama and other organization commercial properties and businesses.

"The Rayo-Montano organization had its own private, rogue navy to run a drug business that was nearly as sophisticated as a small nation," DEA Administrator Karen Tandy said in a statement Wednesday.

"As well-equipped and complex as this enterprise was, it was a matter of time before law enforcement caught on, and now Rayo-Montano's decadent, drug-funded lifestyle has caught up with him. This morning, his real estate holdings went from three islands to one jail cell."

The DEA says "Don Pablo" RAYO-Montano was the chief of a crime organization that used highly sophisticated technological methods to coordinate the movement of cocaine north and illegal drug proceeds south.

The RAYO-Montano organization also has been associated with Colombian narco-terrorist groups such as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Norte del Valle Cartel.

The U.S. Justice Department designated RAYO-Montana as a "consolidated priority organization target" (CPOT) in October 2005. The so-called "CPOT List" — established in March 2002 — is a list of international drug kingpins responsible for the "command and control" of the most sophisticated and far-reaching drug trafficking and money laundering organizations.

RAYO-Montano is the 42nd arrest of a CPOT since the program was launched.

"Operation Twin Oceans sends a strong message from the U.S. Department of Justice to narcotics traffickers: We will seize your ill-gotten property, and we will take away the rewards of your violent trade," said Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher of the Justice Department's Criminal Division.

RAYO-Montano started as a simple drug transporter in Buenaventura, Colombia, almost 20 years ago, rose to prominence within the now-defunct Cali cartel and grew even more to head the worldwide RAYO-Montana, according to the DEA.

The drug cartel used a number of vessels to smuggle loads of cocaine to the United States and Europe. RAYO-Montano's infrastructure included all aspects of cocaine production, international transportation and smuggling, wholesale distribution and money laundering.

Maritime shipment originated on the west and northern coasts of Colombia and used fast boats, fishing boats, submersibles and containerized cargo vessels.

Charges against the cartel include money laundering and conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. If convicted, the defendants could face sentences ranging from 10 years up to life imprisonment.

Investigators from DEA offices in Miami, Tampa, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Indianapolis aided in the operation, as did officials from Cartagena and Bogota, Colombia; Sao Paulo, Brazil; San Jose, Costa Rica; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Guayaquil, Ecuador; Mexico City; Panama City; Caracas, Venezuela; and Madrid, Spain.