In another sign that Los Angeles may have eclipsed Miami as the nation’s drug capital, the number of narcotics traffickers convicted in federal court here reached a record level last year, and prosecutors predict a similar level in 1991.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles said 261 narcotics indictments were lodged during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, leading to 209 convictions. At the same time, federal and local drug investigators working cooperatively seized $73.5 million in cash along with $19.2 million in property, including houses, planes and boats they said were used in narcotics operations or bought with drug profits. Defendants in drug cases forfeited $4 million in cash and $5.8 million worth of property.
“We had an enormously successful year . . . a bumper crop of felons,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. James P. Walsh Jr., who was chief of the office’s major narcotics unit until last month, when he became chief of the organized crime section.
The volume of drug trials at the federal courthouse was so substantial that at one point last year, U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall conducted two of them in tandem--one from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the other from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Walsh said some of the most significant narcotics cases in the nation last year were tried in Los Angeles.
Perhaps the biggest was the conviction of three men from California and Texas who ran a multi-ton cocaine ring that was broken when authorities seized 21 tons of cocaine in Sylmar in September, 1989. The seizure was the largest in world history.
Among the other successful prosecutions:
* Four Los Angeles men and an Argentine were convicted of laundering $350 million in drug money through the downtown Los Angeles jewelry district, the largest money-laundering case in U.S. history.
* Nearly a dozen Los Angeles men and women were convicted of participating in an international drug ring that generated millions in profits and established clear links between traffickers in South-Central Los Angeles and Colombia.
* An Oregon man was convicted of operating a massive drug importing scheme in which more than 11 tons of marijuana was seized in the Gulf of Thailand.
* Four Vietnamese men were convicted of attempting to smuggle 140 pounds of pure “China white” heroin worth about $100 million into Long Beach Harbor, hidden in litchi nut containers.
* Three Mexican men and a Honduran businessman were convicted of involvement in the 1985 murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Enrique Camarena in Guadalajara, Mexico.
* Seven Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies were convicted of conspiring to steal more than $1.4 million of drug proceeds they confiscated from suspects.
Walsh called the Sylmar case “mind boggling,” in part because the defendants were middlemen who only transported and stored cocaine. None of the major drug organizations that supplied the cocaine or distributed it on the street have yet been prosecuted. Still, he said, the seizure caused the wholesale price of cocaine in Los Angeles to jump from $13,000 a kilogram to $30,000.
Despite the seizure, Los Angeles police say the cocaine supply remains plentiful.
The U.S. attorney’s office said it obtained convictions against more than 90% of those indicted on drug charges. Still, the office suffered a few setbacks.
For example, prosecutors dropped charges against four of the 17 people originally indicted in the jewelry district money-laundering case, and five of the other defendants were acquitted.
In the Sylmar case, the jury was unable to reach a verdict on three of the six defendants. The government plans to retry them.
David Kenner, a veteran Los Angeles defense attorney, acknowledged that the government had won significant cases last year, but he was skeptical about whether this was a sign that progress was being made in the drug war.
“Busting a lot of people and confiscating a lot of kilos doesn’t solve the problem,” Kenner said. “This is a demand side problem, not a supply side problem.”
“My perception is that to the extent they’re successful--arresting people and getting kilos off the street--the price of the remaining kilos goes up and is beneficial to the big drug dealers because they have to move less product” to make profits, said Kenner.
Deputy Chief Glenn Levant, until recently the LAPD’s drug czar, said numerous arrests are a sign of progress.
Levant noted that there were 60,000 arrests of narcotics dealers and users in the city last year.
Enforcement efforts are likely to intensify this year because of additional funding from Washington, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. William F. Fahey, who recently succeeded Walsh as head of the office’s major narcotics unit.
Los Angeles is one of five cities that has been designated as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area by the Congress. The five cities will split $50 million for work on major cases, each of which will pool personnel from the U.S. attorney’s office, Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Internal Revenue Service, Customs Service and local law enforcement agencies.
Fahey said the U.S. attorney’s drug unit has 25 attorneys, a number that will grow to 40 by the end of the year. “That will put us second only to Miami in terms of senior prosecutors devoted to narcotics,” he said.
Fahey said the new unit will use computers, telephone wiretaps and infiltration of gangs as part of its effort.
“We still have a helluva battle in front of us,” said John Zienter, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Los Angeles office.
Some of that battle will be played out in federal court.
Already on trial is former DEA Agent Darnell Garcia, who is accused of stealing drugs from the agency’s evidence locker in Los Angeles and selling them.
Among the pending trials in 1991 is one involving three American men and a Colombian who were indicted for conspiring to launder $17 million in drug proceeds from a ring based in Sylmar; eight Nigerians charged with conspiring to import heroin from Nigeria through Zurich and Frankfurt, and three Florida men accused with conspiring to distribute over four tons of cocaine.
In addition, 13 Los Angeles men and women have been charged with distributing cocaine and PCP nationwide and laundering money. During this investigation, state and federal agents seized more than $3.2 million in cash, six houses, three businesses, 19 cars, $250,000 in jewelry and numerous firearms as well as drugs.
Also awaiting trials are a Bolivian businessman considered that country’s drug kingpin, five Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and an LAPD officer charged with stealing money and property from drug suspects, and a DEA supervisory agent charged with theft of money from a drug defendant.
Prosecutors hope to try Humberto Alvarez Machain, a Guadalajara doctor who faces charges in connection with DEA Agent Camarena’s murder.