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Probe of Drug Cartel Brings 21 Indictments

Times Staff Writer

Twenty-one people, including an Orange County lawyer who has defended alleged members of a Colombian drug cartel, have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of cocaine smuggling, it was disclosed Wednesday.

Eleven people have been arrested so far in the case, which involved the importation and distribution of up to 1,000 kilograms of uncut cocaine in the United States every month for at least a year, officials said.

More than 60 kilograms of the drug were seized or purchased by undercover agents as the result of a yearlong operation by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, U.S. attorney’s office and several local police departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department.

“This is just the initial stage” and additional charges are expected, said DEA Special Agent Robert Bender.

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Among those arrested was Josue T. (J.T.) Prada, 39, an attorney in Santa Ana who has boasted to undercover agents of his ties to members of a notorious cocaine cartel based in Medellin, Colombia, Bender said.

Bender said that Prada was the leader of the drug operation domestically, providing legal work and facilitating cocaine transactions across the country. In addition, he served as a “conduit” to the Medellin group, Bender said.

Officials said they seized documents and $200,000 in cash from Prada’s premises.

“It seems like his whole law practice was interrelated with this (conspiracy),” said assistant U.S. Atty. William McGivern at a press conference.

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Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Glenn Levant said Prada has served as the defense attorney for Colombian nationals in numerous drug cases in the United States, as well as for other major narcotics traffickers.

“It seems kind of hypocritical for a lawyer to be involved in the same crime as his clients,” Levant said.

Prada, who was arrested last week and is scheduled to have a bail hearing today in Los Angeles, earlier this year also represented Argentine ex-general Carlos Suarez Mason, who unsuccessfully opposed an extradition order to Buenos Aires.

Suarez Mason currently faces 43 charges of murder and other charges in that country, in connection with the deaths or disappearance of thousands of allegedly leftist elements during Argentina’s so-called “dirty war” of the 1970s.

Also indicted was Medillin resident Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez-Gacha, 41, described in court papers as a soccer team owner. According to Bender, Rodriguez-Gacha was the kingpin of the international conspiracy and is believed to be in Colombia.

Another Colombian national, Pablo Escobar-Gavira, 38, a senator and businessman from Medellin, also was indicted. Whether the two men can be arrested depends on the government of Colombia’s willingness to adhere to extradition treaties, authorities said.

Reflecting a trend toward increased technical and financial sophistication on the part of drug traffickers, the group allegedly hired its own private investigators to conduct counter-surveillance on law enforcement, used expensive communications equipment, and even employed real estate brokers to seek out investment opportunities for their illegal profits, the officials said.

Planned to Buy Plane

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When the alleged conspirators were arrested last week, some had been negotiating with undercover law enforcement agents to purchase an airplane to be used for transporting the drugs, allegedly making international calls from cellular telephones.

Agents said most of the drugs seized had been shipped through Los Angeles. Five suspects were arrested in Los Angeles, and evidence including machine guns, automobiles and currency has been seized there.

Additionally, $650,000 in cash and $70,000 in gemstones were seized in Los Angeles. Electronic equipment, including cellular telephones and computers, were also found.

Investigators believe the ring peddled cocaine to buyers in at least four states, including New York and Florida.


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