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Agency's Gear Tracks Traffickers : 2 Colombia Drug Cartels Dealt Setbacks, FBI Says

December 07, 1988|RONALD J. OSTROW | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The FBI, unveiling an operation that had supplied drug traffickers with rigged electronic devices, announced the arrest Tuesday of top members of six trafficking and transportation organizations.

Disclosing the issuance of 93 arrest warrants and more than 20 indictments, the FBI said the undercover operation put out of business the six organizations, which allegedly served the Medellin and Cali cocaine cartels in Colombia.

The groups distributed thousands of kilograms of cocaine, marijuana and heroin from South and Central America and Caribbean countries through a network stretching from Miami to New York, Los Angeles and Europe, the agency said.

FBI Director William S. Sessions described the scheme as "the largest undercover operation ever directed toward the inter-workings" of the Medellin and Cali cartels.

'Significant Impact'

"Because of the positions and large numbers of those charged and arrested," Sessions said, the investigation "will have a significant impact on the ability of these cartels to continue to import drugs into the United States and abroad."

The traffickers charged told undercover agents that they were smuggling drugs on behalf of cartels headed by Pablo Escobar-Gaviria, Jorge Luis Ochoa and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez-Gacha, according to the FBI.

Under the operation, dubbed Cat-Com for catch-communications, FBI agents established a firm in Hialeah, Fla., R.A. Communications & Computers Inc., to supply drug traffickers with electronic gear, including cellular telephones, beepers, pagers, navigational and homing devices. The equipment was rigged so that agents could track the traffickers, according to sources familiar with the operation.

Relayed to Other Agencies

Information gleaned from the devices often was relayed to other agencies, including the Coast Guard, which then made apprehensions and seizures without focusing traffickers' suspicions on R.A. Communications, an FBI spokesman said.

In a December, 1987, incident, FBI agents posing as sailboat operators were hired by traffickers to transport 402 kilograms of cocaine processed in Colombia from an island off Panama's eastern coast to a U.S. port. The FBI planned to covertly seize the drugs once at sea and then advise the traffickers that the boat, named Naut-for-Fun, had sunk with the crew lost.

The plan was changed, however, when the vessel ran into critical weather conditions and did actually sink. The Coast Guard rescued FBI and civilian personnel and recovered the cocaine, the FBI said.

More Arrests Expected

With more than 70 arrests made by late Tuesday, the covert phase of the investigation ended, but further arrests and charges are expected, an FBI spokesman said. While the investigation extended to Los Angeles, no arrests were made there, the spokesman said.

The indictments, alleging conspiracy and various drug violations, were returned by federal grand juries in Tampa and Miami.

"Our goal is to disrupt and dismantle these alleged drug transportation and distribution networks by prosecuting, convicting and imprisoning members and stripping away their assets," Sessions said. "The impact on drug supplies and trafficking is far greater than if only large seizures of drugs are conducted."

Second Major Roundup

The operation marked the second major FBI roundup of drug traffickers in a week.

Last Wednesday, the bureau climaxed a three-year undercover operation into heroin and cocaine trafficking in American pizza parlors by lodging charges against more than 200 people in the United States and Italy, including leaders of the Sicilian Mafia.

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