06/13/2002

Officials say Heroin Arrests Show New Supply Routes

by Benjamin Weiser, The New York Times

Federal authorities said yesterday that they had broken up a major Colombian drug-exporting ring that was smuggling millions of dollars worth of heroin each month into New York and elsewhere.

Prosecutors said that among the 25 people arrested, both in New York and Colombia, were the group's leader and two top aides. The extradition of the three to the United States is now being sought.

The arrests highlight what the authorities say has been the use of increasingly sophisticated smuggling techniques and the emergence of Colombia as a successor to Asia as the major heroin supplier to the United States.

In describing the new techniques, James B. Comey, the United States attorney in Manhattan, told of chemists working in Colombian laboratories who dissolved heroin into clothing that was folded and packed in suitcases and carried by couriers into the United States. Then, chemists in this country extracted the heroin and had it prepared for sale on the street, he said.

"Heroin is back in New York, and it is back with a vengeance," Mr. Comey said. He added that, while 20 years ago, the heroin sold on the streets of New York came from Southwest and Southeast Asia, "The Colombian drug lords have branched out from cocaine and have come to dominate that traffic."

Felix J. Jimenez, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York field office, said United States investigators worked closely in the yearlong investigation with Colombian law enforcement authorities, including sharing intelligence information developed in both countries.

Mr. Comey, who was joined at a news conference by a general from the Colombian National Police, said the drug ring was "among the most powerful, the most dominant heroin organizations in the world."

Prosecutors said the group smuggled 10 to 20 kilograms of heroin, with a street value of $1.5 to $3 million, into the United States each month.

Mr. Comey said the Colombians' move into the American marketplace reflected "just economics." In the last decade, he said, Colombian drug lords, long major cocaine exporters, realized they could also grow opium in the Colombian climate. By selling at high purity and a low price, he said, they saw they could make inroads into the market share held by the Asian countries.

"It's what we might call in another market `predatory pricing,' " Mr. Comey said, "and they essentially captured the market, particularly here on the East Coast, but throughout most of the country."

The indictment, unsealed yesterday in Federal District Court in Manhattan, charges that the organization, led by Jose Jairo Garcia-Giraldo, bought heroin on the open market after it was grown on farms and refined in laboratories. The heroin was then prepared for smuggling in special packaging mills, where it was "secreted in hidden compartments in luggage and soaked into clothing for transit to the United States," the indictment said.

Couriers then carried the heroin into the United States on commercial flights, for distribution in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston. Some was transported in less sophisticated ways as well, Mr. Comey said. For example, he said, Colombian investigators have seized 15 kilograms of heroin, much of it in pellet form, suggesting that it was to be swallowed by people known as mules, who would then carry it into the United States.

Along with Mr. Garcia-Giraldo, the United States government is seeking the extradition of his brother, Fabio, who the indictment said coordinated shipments to the United States through Ecuador and the recruiting of couriers. Also sought was Juan Carlos Giraldo-Perez, who was described as overseeing the packaging of the organization's heroin. The government also indicted several people it called "New York based distributors" for the group.

None of those arrested in New York appeared in court for arraignment yesterday.

The government said that, among other things, it had seized $490,000 in drug proceeds in New York and 55 pounds of heroin-soaked clothing from a courier in Houston.

Mr. Comey said that the heroin "made the clothing fairly rough — you wouldn't want to wear it."

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