MIAMI – A former top Bolivian counternarcotics official and a co-conspirator pleaded guilty Thursday to federal cocaine trafficking charges, promising to help U.S. drug investigators in hopes of shaving years off their prison sentences.
The former official, 58-year-old Rene Sanabria, and 43-year-old Marcelo Foronda each faced a potential life sentence if they had not pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate. Now, they could get around 10 years or even less when sentenced in September, Foronda defense attorney Orlando do Campo said.
Sanabria once headed Bolivia's counternarcotics police and since 2009 had been chief of an elite drug intelligence unit within Bolivia's Interior Ministry. His arrest came after a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting, in which Sanabria and Foronda agreed to help shuttle thousands of dollars worth of drugs to Miami. It was a major embarrassment for Bolivian President Evo Morales, who in 2008 banished the DEA from his country for supposedly helping his political opponents.
Bolivia is the world's No. 3 producer of cocaine, after Colombia and Peru. Morales' policy of zero tolerance for cocaine was badly bruised by Sanabria's arrest.
During the DEA sting, agents posed as Colombian cocaine traffickers. Prosecutors said Sanabria, Foronda and others agreed in August 2010 to provide protection for drugs. They were to be paid $2,500 for each brick of cocaine in a 220-pound test load to be sent to Miami. Then, they would get half the profit from another 96 pounds to be sold on Miami streets.
Undercover agents eventually wired $250,000 to bank accounts Sanabria controlled in Hong Kong. The test load was driven out of Bolivia and hidden in a shipping container along with zinc rocks in Chile. It arrived in Miami in November 2010, where it was seized by the DEA.
Sanabria and Foronda, under close surveillance by the DEA, were arrested in February in Panama and immediately put on a plane to Miami. They have been in U.S. custody ever since.
The two men, dressed in tan prison outfits and wearing shackles, said little at Thursday's hearing other than to respond to U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro's questions. Sanabria did say through a Spanish translator that he was taking medications "for my nerves." Their sentencing date was set for Sept. 2.
Audio and video recordings made by the U.S. agents indicate Sanabria's group had much bigger drug smuggling plans, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Dobbins. Those included using Bolivian airline passengers to personally bring cocaine into the U.S. and storing drugs in aircraft cargo holds.
Under their plea agreements, Sanabria and Foronda must cooperate in the forfeiture to the U.S. of at least $1.2 million in drug profits held in foreign banks. They also agreed to do undercover work for U.S. authorities.
Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt