Colombian drug kingpin busted in massive smuggling operation
LOS ANGELES — A Colombian drug kingpin who participated in a violent ring that used planes, speedboats and submarines to smuggle hundreds of millions of dollars in cocaine faced federal trafficking charges Friday in a Los Angeles courtroom, prosecutors said.
Victor Hugo Cuellar-Silva is among nearly four dozen defendants charged in a vast conspiracy to ship tons of cocaine from South America through Mexico to the United States.
The indictment unsealed Thursday was unique in targeting people throughout the drug distribution chain from the source of where the coke was produced in Colombia to investors in Mexico, transportation coordinators, houses where the drugs were stashed and to large scale distributors in the United States, federal prosecutors said.
Cuellar-Silva, who was extradited Thursday from Colombia, was a high-ranking member of the drug ring headed by Mexican fugitive Angel Humberto Chavez-Gastelum, who is one of the most-wanted drug traffickers in the world, prosecutors said.
Chavez-Gastelum and his son, Alonso Jaime Gastelum-Salazar, are also charged in the indictment with two counts of murder in Mexico. One of the victims was tortured and dismembered and the grisly act was shot on video obtained by investigators, prosecutors said.
“This drug ring has spread death and misery across the Americas and to other parts of the world, which makes this case among the most significant drug trafficking cases ever brought in this district,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna.
Authorities seized more than 7,700 pounds of cocaine with a street value over $500 million during the three-year investigation.
The seizures included cocaine recovered after a plane was shot down by the Venezuelan military and crashed in the Caribbean, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Barron.
Other drugs seized included nearly a ton of cocaine floating in bales off the coast of Tumaco, Colombia and more than 1,500 pounds of cocaine and over 60 pounds of methamphetamine seized from a house in Tijuana, Mexico.
The indictment charged 47 people in the drug operation. Seven defendants were arrested in the United States on Thursday, four were in custody in Thailand and about a half-dozen were facing extradition from Colombia. The others remained at large.
Cuellar-Silva was in custody. A defense lawyer representing him said he had no comment.
If convicted of the charges, Cuellar-Silva and Chavez-Gastelum face up to life in prison, prosecutors said.