Justice Department officials in Atlanta announced yesterday that the U.S. government has indicted 41 people in what they called a $1 billion cocaine ring that imported nearly four tons of the drug into the United States in the past four years.
Attorney General Edwin Meese III said here yesterday that authorities seized real estate valued at $6 million, including houses, apartment buildings and warehouses, as illegal proceeds of the drug enterprise. In addition, the government has seized 17 companies in Florida and Alabama, ranging from security companies and a beauty salon to a grocery store and a furniture warehouse. No value was placed on the businesses.
The indictments were unsealed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta after a nine-month investigation called "Operation Quartermaster."
A Justice Department spokesman said 100 officers arrested 30 of the defendants Thursday night, mostly in Florida.
Among them were Carlos Caraballo-Lujan, Henry Edsel Holmes and Rolando Zaldivar, all of the Miami area. They also were charged with operating a continuing criminal enterprise, a violation of the "drug kingpin" statute that carries a maximum penalty of life in prison without parole and fine of $100,000.
Holmes is the owner of Sherlock Holmes Security Inc., one of the seized companies, where much of the planning for the operation occurred, according to the 59-page indictment.
Of those indicted, 25 were charged with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and 29 were charged with racketeering conspiracy. Both carry potential sentences of 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
Atlanta U.S. Attorney Stephen S. Cowen said at a news conference that the group used small planes to pick up 11 loads of cocaine in Colombia and delivered them to rural airstrips in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee the Bahamas and Mexico. There they were picked up and taken to Miami for distribution throughout the United States.
"Agents were able to seize five loads," he said. "When customs agents attempted to catch one plane leaving an airstrip, some of the cocaine was dumped out over a jogging trail in Tennessee."
The indictment said the ring's personnel included ground crews, armed with semiautomatic weapons, that met flights and then took the cocaine by car to Miami.
Federal agents infiltrated the ring last summer by posing as owners of rural airstrips who were interested in entering the drug ring, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which ran the investigation.
The Justice Department said it had documented shipments of 7,700 pounds of cocaine in the case since 1982. Cowen said the cocaine had a wholesale value of more than $150 million and a street value of about $1 billion.
The department said a total of 3,600 pounds of cocaine were seized by the government during the investigation.
The indictments by grand juries, in Atlanta and Macon, Ga.; Mobile and Birmingham, Ala.; Knoxville, Tenn., and Miami, were unsealed yesterday.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Robbie Hamrick said the indictments show "the problem is as bad or worse than we thought."
Ron Caffrey, an agent of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, said, "Although it was a fairly typical raid, it will make a dent and cause some displacement. But cocaine consumption in the United States must be depreciated."