LOS ANGELES - Two Colombian drug kingpins have been extradited to Los Angeles on federal charges for allegedly overseeing multi-ton shipments of cocaine from Colombian laboratories to Central American distribution hubs that were ultimately destined for sale in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the U.S.
Dicson Penagos-Casanova, 36, and Juan Gabriel Rios Sierra, 34, are charged in an indictment unsealed Tuesday with spearheading the conspiracy to 'coordinate aerial shipments of ton-quantities of cocaine' for sale to 'cocaine-trafficking syndicates' in Central America. The shipments included more than $70 million in cocaine recovered by international law enforcement.
The charges are the result of a probe by special agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Los Angeles and Colombia; the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force; and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). The Colombian, Aruban and Dutch governments also provided substantial assistance.
Specifically, Penagos and Rios would 'transport the cocaine via overland routes from production laboratories outside Meta, Colombia, to underground storage facilities near clandestine airstrips in the western Apure Department of Venezuela.' They would 'arrange for bribes to be paid to Venezuelan military and government officials in an effort to ensure that aircraft carrying cocaine loads 'enjoyed safe passage through Venezuelan airspace.' Using jets that they acquired 'through straw purchasers in the United States,' Penagos and Rios would hire pilots to fly the cocaine to the 'Central American distribution hubs,' where the drugs would be offloaded 'for further distribution' in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the U.S. and Mexico.
'By taking key players out of commission, we are disrupting the drug cartels' ability to import their dangerous narcotics into our country,' said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker. 'These defendants' arrival in the U.S. for prosecution marks a significant victory for law enforcement here and in Central and South America, which have worked in concert to ensure justice is achieved in this case.'
The indictment focuses on two air shipments in January and May of 2015 that collectively contained approximately 3.2 tons of cocaine, which has a black market wholesale value of approximately $72 million. Both shipments were ultimately recovered by international law enforcement after two aircraft crashed. The January 2015 cocaine shipment was shot down by the Venezuelan Air Force shortly after takeoff. Soon thereafter, Dutch law enforcement recovered kilogram-sized packages of cocaine that were floating in the Caribbean Sea near Aruba. The May 2015 aircraft crashed into the Caribbean Sea near the Colombian port of Barranquilla after its engine failed.
The indictment also outlines intercepted communications in which Penagos and Rios coordinated the cocaine shipments and discuss the two downed aircraft, including sharing an article from a Honduran newspaper reporting on the January 2015 shoot-down and speculating on whether the May 2015 crash was also the product of 'intervention by the Venezuelan military.
'The vast majority of cocaine imported to the U.S. originates in Colombia, and a substantial amount of it transits the Los Angeles area,' said DEA Special Agent in Charge Steve Comer. 'This investigation penetrated the highest levels of multiple drug cartels and disrupted the entire cocaine supply chain, from the production in Colombia to the distribution in the U.S. Continued collaboration between DEA and our foreign and domestic law enforcement partners will deliver similar blows to the cocaine industry, which is already being forced to rethink its logistics.'
Penagos and Rios were delivered to United States custody Tuesday after Colombian courts approved the extradition request. The defendants are expected to be arraigned on the indictment Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. If convicted of the charges in the indictment, Penagos and Rios each face a statutory maximum prison term of life in federal prison.
An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Benjamin Barron, Carol Alexis Chen and Ryan Weinstein of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Section.