US hits Colombian drug cartel's Caribbean network

U.S. federal authorities said Friday they are charging 23 people with moving drugs and illicit money through the Caribbean on behalf of a major Colombian drug cartel.

The suspects are accused of smuggling Colombian cocaine into the United States and making sure the proceeds made it back to the South American country's North Valley cartel through bank deposits and transfers disguised to look like legitimate transactions, said Roberto Escobar Vargas, special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Homeland Security Investigations in Puerto Rico, which led the investigation.

Investigators have evidence that the group laundered some $3 million in drug proceeds over the course of about a year but the actual total is likely much higher, Escobar said.

Twenty-one of the suspects have been arrested so far in Colombia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, New York, Miami and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Those arrested outside Puerto Rico will be extradited to the island to face money laundering and drug charges, U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez said at a news conference on the island to announce the indictments.

Most of those arrested are relatively low-level operatives. Authorities identified Ricardo Betancourt Munoz, who was arrested in Colombia, as the "main money broker," for the cartel's Caribbean cell. The leader, identified as Roberto Mendez, whose nickname is "Pluma," is still being sought.

The North Valley cartel rose in the mid-1990s from the once-dominant Medellin and Cali gangs.