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Officials Trace ‘Trampoline’ Drug Route

Times Staff Writers

Before its journey was interrupted by a citizen’s tip to federal drug agents, the cocaine cache of historic proportions discovered in a Sylmar warehouse had already traveled about 3,500 miles along a route authorities call “The Trampoline.”

“The cocaine is moved from Colombia to Mexico and bounced up into the United States,” said Mike Holm, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Los Angeles office.

The cocaine, stuffed in nearly 20,000 one-kilo burlap bags that were packed in boxes, was apparently bound for markets across the United States, authorities said.

If all of it arrived the way the last shipment did, the drugs came 1,000 kilos at a time, secreted in a false compartment about 10 feet high and 15 feet long at the front of a semi’s 60-foot trailer.

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The truck, which carried New Mexico license plates, was believed to have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso, Tex., Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said.

The record seizure makes it clear that new smuggling procedures are emerging, federal officials said.

“The traditional days of Colombians taking it all the way through the Caribbean are ending,” explained Charles P. Gutensohn, chief of the DEA’s cocaine investigation section in Washington.

“They (now) need Mexican couriers to bring it up across the borders and to the big cities,” he said, adding that “Mexican couriers are now major players.”

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The three suspects arrested in connection with the Sylmar cocaine seizure all have papers identifying themselves as Mexican nationals. And, a DEA source said, they were moving 60 tons of cocaine a year through the ocher-colored warehouse that had purportedly housed a business importing Mexican crockery and pinatas.

There is little doubt of the cocaine’s origins.

The word “Reina"--Spanish for “queen"--marked on some of the packages found in the warehouse means that they contain drugs from laboratories controlled by Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, also known as “El Mexicano,” Holm said. The DEA identified Rodriguez Gacha as the No. 2 man in the Medellin cartel.

There were other “brand names” written on other packages, too, though the links between those names and specific groups within particular cartels are not as clear.

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One brand called “Bush” refers to President George Bush, who has declared a war on drugs. “When Reagan was President, they used to say ‘Reagan,’ ” Special Assistant U.S. Atty. Susan Bryant-Deason said.

Another brand, “Metro,” refers to metropolitan Dade County in Florida, another major cocaine distribution point.

There were also “Centavo,” “Sony” and “Baby.” There was “Coca-Cola” and, on some bags, a coffee label: “50 Anos.”

Federal agents said they deduced from the brand names that both major cocaine cartels--Medellin and Cali--were storing drugs in the warehouse.

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It was unclear when the shipment or shipments were dispatched from the South American laboratories, where raw coca paste is turned into cocaine.

If they were recent, they would represent a jarring exception to what U.S. drug czar William J. Bennett and other Bush Administration officials have described as a “drying up” of cocaine-smuggling since the Colombian government launched its crackdown on drug cartels in that country.

However, a U.S. official said he believed that the shipment might well have been in the “pipeline” since long before the Colombian offensive began just over a month ago.

From Colombia, the Sylmar-bound drugs apparently traveled by plane to northern Mexico. Pilots are paid about $100,000 per load, a local DEA source said.

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“These twin-turbo planes can carry 500 kilos at a time,” added a law enforcement source in Mexico, who asked not to be identified. “It’s a big desert up there. You got to act like a rock to do any investigating up there. There are airstrips up the kazoo. You can land just about anywhere.”

Authorities say they do not yet know which Mexican airstrip was the landing spot for the Sylmar drugs, and they also do not know whether the cocaine was loaded directly onto the trucks heading for the border at El Paso.

But, authorities said, it probably was not all that difficult to cross.

“We have a tremendous volume of semis that cross the border every day,” said Lt. J. R. Grijalva of the El Paso Police Department. “We have twin plants (factories) that operate on both sides of the border and they shuttle products back and forth. You can’t check every one of them.”

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Bob Jones, a U.S. Customs Service agent in El Paso, speculated that any trucks ferrying cocaine would not come over a bridge, but rather go overland.

“We have lots of wide-open spaces and it’s tough to cover it all in terms of manpower and equipment,” he said.

But once the drivers crossed into El Paso, they probably steered straight to Los Angeles.

“I doubt if they stopped except for gas and pit stops,” federal prosecutor Bryant-Deason said.

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The next stop was an industrial neighborhood in Sylmar, at a warehouse marked “Adriana’s.” For two years, the suspected drug distributors had leased the one-story building, paying the $1,700 monthly rent with $20 bills.

Cash was certainly no problem. Piled inside the warehouse were U-Haul boxes and duffel bags filled with wads of money. One of the cartons contained $1.8 million.

Pasternak reported from Los Angeles and Jehl from Washington. Also contributing were Michael Connelly and John Kendall in Los Angeles, J. Michael Kennedy in Houston and Marjorie Miller in Mexico City.

THE ‘TRAMPOLINE’ Federal drug agents seized 20 tons of cocaine with a street value of $6.7 billion Friday at a warehouse in Sylmar, and officials called it the biggest drug haul in history. In addition to the drugs and cash, agents seized financial records, customer lists and a large truck-trailer that was parked at the warehouse’s entrance. No weapons were found. The cocaine cache discovered in the Sylmar warehouse had already traveled about 3,500 miles along a route authorities call “The Trampoline,” because the drugs “bounce” from Colombia and Mexico into the United States. From Colombia, the drugs apparently traveled by plane to airstrips in northern Mexico. Authorities do not know whether the cocaine was loaded directly onto trucks heading for the U.S. border. But once the drivers crossed into El Paso, they probably drove straight to Los Angeles.

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