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DEA Breaks Up Key Colombian Drug Syndicate

U.S. DEA Breaks Up Key Colombian Drug, Money-Laundering Syndicate

One of world's most wanted drug gangs targeted by investigators

By Eric Green
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has announced it has broken up a key Colombian drug and money-laundering organization through large-scale arrests, the capture of significant amounts of illegal drugs, and the seizure of 36 bank accounts from 11 Colombian banks.

The initial targets of the DEA's four-year-long "Operation Double Trouble" were Ivan Henao and his Colombian-based money-laundering and cocaine-trafficking organization. Henao's group was one of 53 criminal organizations on a U.S. list of the "World's Most Wanted" drug and money-laundering enterprises responsible for sending significant amounts of drugs to the United States.

The DEA said in a statement that its four-year operation was responsible for the seizure of over $12.8 million, 353 kilograms of cocaine, 21 kilograms of heroin, and the arrests of more than 55 drug traffickers and money brokers.

Henao was well-known among Colombian drug-trafficking cells operating in the United States as a drug money broker, the DEA said. At least 18 drug distribution cells throughout the United States were using Henao's money-laundering services.

The DEA investigation documented that from June 1999 to the present, the Henao organization laundered at least $30 million in drug proceeds using a money-laundering system known as the Black Market Peso Exchange (BMPE).

The BMPE is the largest known drug money-laundering system existing in the
Western Hemisphere and is responsible for converting the bulk of the drug currency that leaves the United States for Colombia, the DEA said. The system enables Colombian drug cartels to exchange their U.S. drug dollars with Colombian money brokers who pay them in pesos in Colombia. Additionally, this organization used a number of small businesses in both countries to launder its ill-gotten gains, said the DEA.

Besides the DEA, the investigation involved other U.S. government agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice, along with state and local law enforcement agencies, and Colombia's Department de Seguridad.

The DEA said in its August 29 statement that the Double Trouble operation signals a "re-energized effort" to attack the financial infrastructure of drug cartels. "We are focusing on drug trafficking organizations as if they are Fortune 500 companies, which must be eliminated as single business entities from top to bottom, from the boardroom ... to the street corner," the DEA explained.

Meanwhile, the United States has also announced the arrest of a British arms dealer accused in a 1991 scheme to kill Pablo Escobar, the then-leader of Colombia's Medellin drug cartel.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a September 5 statement that it had arrested British mercenary David Brian Tompkins at the Houston, Texas, international airport after it determined that there was an outstanding U.S. warrant for his arrest in Miami, Florida.

Tompkins was accused of attempting to buy a U.S. fighter jet for use in killing Escobar, and allegedly was to be paid $10 million by the rival Cali cartel to assassinate the Medelllin drug baron.

In subsequent undercover meetings, Tompkins reportedly indicated that he was a mercenary and that he sought to buy the jet to bomb a prison in Colombia that was housing Escobar. Tompkins also allegedly discussed the need to purchase bombs for the jet and a helicopter to survey the prison after the planned bombing to ensure Escobar was dead. The indictment against Tompkins charges that in 1991 he paid undercover U.S. agents $25,000 as a down payment for the aircraft.

ICE's Acting Assistant Secretary Michael Garcia said the arrest of Tompkins "removes a key player from the ranks of international arms dealers," adding: "One of the most important missions of ICE is to put these individuals out of business and prevent them from trafficking in sensitive U.S. weapons."

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