Sunday, August 12, 2012

6 Hid Drugs in Diplomas and Candy, Officials Say

Published: August 7, 2012

Drug traffickers have been widely known to employ extreme and inventive measures to smuggle narcotics into the United States, but six people arrested on Tuesday may have won a prize for creativity.

Prosecutors accused the six of smuggling narcotics from Ecuador by stuffing cocaine inside empanadas and heroin inside sesame candy. But the real find, the authorities said, was a stack of what looked like diplomas from a scuba-diving school that had been soaked in more than three pounds of liquid cocaine.

“The techniques employed were extremely sophisticated,” New York City’s special narcotics prosecutor, Bridget G. Brennan, said.

During the investigation into the reputed drug operation, the authorities said they discovered that the man they called the ringleader, Jorge Guerrero, was also stealing valuables from lost luggage that he was supposed to deliver to airline passengers after it was found.

“He was just such an opportunist,” Ms. Brennan said. “His day job was stealing from lost luggage.”

Mr. Guerrero, 39, was indicted on charges of conspiracy and attempted criminal possession of a controlled substance. The penalty for the possession charge is up to 20 years in prison. He pleaded not guilty on Tuesday.

Law enforcement officers said Mr. Guerrero’s operation could buy 2.2 pounds of cocaine in Ecuador for about $2,000 and sell it for $25,000 to $30,000 in the United States. William Novak, an assistant district attorney, described Mr. Guerrero as the “main receiver” of the drug shipments sent as freight and the mastermind of the smuggling ring. Mr. Novak argued for holding him without bail, claiming that Mr. Guerrero was a flight risk because he had many relatives in Ecuador.

“If he flees, he’s never coming back,” Mr. Novak said.

Mr. Guerrero’s lawyer, Frank Rothman, portrayed him as a married man with three children who was unlikely to flee. He said the police had not found drugs in Mr. Guerrero’s home.

Judge Bonnie G. Wittner ordered him held without bail.

Mr. Guerrero’s wife, Cecilia Guerrero; Riqui Perez; Noe Fernandez; Luis Amable Caisa Altamirano; and Judy Campos were also arrested. The authorities charged that Ms. Guerrero often helped her husband with the smuggling operation and the luggage thefts. She was charged with conspiracy and criminal possession of a controlled substance.

During a search of the Guerreros’ home in Jamaica, Queens, officers said they found 13 suitcases, over 50 designer handbags, 20 cameras and 50 watches.

The authorities said a six-month investigation had tied the defendants to drug trafficking.

Over three months, agents confiscated more than 11 pounds of narcotics in New York and New Jersey that they said was linked to the defendants.

On May 3, agents discovered more than a pound of cocaine hidden inside chocolate bars and more than half a pound of cocaine concealed in chocolate candies. On May 28, over three pounds of cocaine was found stuffed inside empanadas. On June 8, they said, they seized the sesame candy, with more than a pound of heroin in it. On June 25, a pound of cocaine was discovered at the bottom of a container of homemade sugar and cookies. On July 12, the diplomas were found.

Law enforcement officials estimate the cocaine and heroin were worth about $150,000 on the wholesale market in the United States.

Michael Levine, who worked for the Drug Enforcement Agency for 25 years, said liquid cocaine could be converted back into a solid form. But a significant portion of the cocaine is typically lost in the process. He added that small- to midlevel traffickers have soaked liquid cocaine in clothes. But he said he never heard of it being soaked in paper.

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