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Details Emerge in Case Against Key Drug Figure : Narcotics: Roca, whom prosecutors call the onetime drug king of Bolivia, faces trial next year. Court records include allegations of sordid family drama and international intrigue.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five years ago, U.S. Customs agents in Miami opened an upright freezer that was being shipped from Los Angeles to Bolivia. Inside was cold cash--more than $2 million in U.S. currency.

Two weeks later, customs agents in Miami opened two more shipments--stereo speakers and vacuum cleaners--en route from Los Angeles to Bolivia. Inside one speaker was $500,000. Inside the two vacuum cleaners was $398,950.

The serial number of the freezer and the sales invoice for the vacuum cleaners led federal agents to a San Gabriel appliance store--and, agents said in sworn statements filed recently in federal court, to Jorge Roca Suarez.

Roca, prosecutors contend, was the drug king of Bolivia from 1985 to 1990. In December, after five years of meticulously tracking Roca’s finances, agents arrested him at his 19-room estate in San Marino.

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Roca’s arrest signaled a high-stakes test of the so-called “war on drugs,” leading to two court cases, one in San Diego, the other in Los Angeles.

Only in recent weeks has the court file begun to fill with legal papers offering allegations of sordid family drama, international intrigue and big-time crime.

Prosecutors in San Diego charged Roca, 39, with 18 felony counts that could bring him life in prison. In Los Angeles, he was hit with 12 criminal tax and fraud counts as well as civil suits seeking the forfeiture of 35 assets worth millions of dollars. Defense attorneys insist that Roca is innocent.

Roca is among the first of the alleged South American drug lords brought to trial in the United States. The San Diego case is going first; a hearing is set for Sept. 16 and his trial is to start March 3.

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Drug Enforcement Administration officials refuse to discuss the case.

Roca’s lawyer, Michael Abzug of Los Angeles, also refused to comment. In court papers he said the “source of Mr. Roca’s wealth” after 1985 was a trust fund created by his mother. Abzug also said Roca has been involved in real estate since 1981, and “it is evident that for the past 10 years Mr. Roca has been a successful, legitimate businessman.”

Though the San Diego trial is six months away, the legal maneuvering is intense. On July 19, U.S. District Judge Earl B. Gilliam denied Roca’s request for $550,000 bail, saying it was not enough to guarantee that Roca would not flee the country. Roca remains in federal jail in Los Angeles.

The court filings feature broad prosecution allegations of a cocaine cartel, run by the Roca family, called The Corporation; clandestine meetings in La Jolla and Panama; secret drug labs in Bolivia, official Mexican corruption, and kidnapings, beatings and murder.

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Prosecutors allege that Roca took over a cartel and, with the aid of many family members, built it into “one of the most powerful organizations in Bolivia.”

For five years, prosecutors said, Roca and his family helped control all aspects of the cocaine trade, from the buying of coca paste in Bolivia to the import of the finished product to the United States and the export back to Bolivia of “hundreds of millions of drug dollars.”

The indictments name 20 other family members, most of whom remain fugitives, prosecutors said. Roca’s wife, Cirila, and two of his sisters, Beatriz and Vilma, were arrested but have posted bail, court records indicate.

Nicknamed Techo de Paja (Straw Roof) because of his blond hair, Roca was born in Bolivia in 1952. With his mother, he immigrated to the United States when he was 10 and spent most of his youth in Los Angeles, prosecutors said. He did not graduate from high school.

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In 1981, after working for several years as a mechanic and car salesman at Los Angeles-area auto dealers, including his own failed dealership, Roca returned home to work for his uncle, Roberto Suarez Gomez. The patriarch of a respected cattle-ranching family, Suarez became better known as the reputed “cocaine godfather of Bolivia,” prosecutors said.

Bolivia provides a large proportion of the coca leaves and cocaine paste--called sulfato --that are refined into powdered and rock cocaine. Suarez supplied paste to powerful Colombian traffickers, relying heavily on a group of young Bolivians, including Roca, to buy sulfato and get it to shipment points, according to a DEA account.

According to that account, Roca undercut his uncle’s price, betrayed Suarez by dealing with the Colombians behind his uncle’s back, and got his own start with a chunk of operating capital that Suarez had advanced him for buying paste.

Suarez, arrested in 1988, is in prison in Bolivia, prosecutors said in court filings.

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Roca has no criminal record in the United States. In Bolivia, he was acquitted in April, 1989, of operating a cocaine lab, defense attorney Abzug said in legal papers. That acquittal, prosecutors in San Diego responded in their filings, was because of high-level corruption that led to charges against two judges and a prosecutor.

The San Diego case evolved from another case--a 1989 trial in San Diego that resulted in the conviction of three Mexicans and four Bolivians on charges of conspiring to import 5,000 kilos of cocaine into the United States for $27 million. U.S. District Judge William B. Enright sentenced all seven to 25 to 30 years in prison, and all have appealed.

Roca is not mentioned in those indictments, but the connection to the earlier case is drawn in documents filed with his bid for bail.

Prosecutors gave the following account of the first case: In 1987, an informant for the Customs Service, David Wheeler, began negotiating with a Mexican attorney, Efren Mendez Duenas, about importing cocaine into the United States. Mendez identified a Bolivian source of supply, prosecutors said.

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Shipping the cocaine to the United States meant landing and refueling planes in Mexico. Mendez found corrupt Mexican officials who could arrange to protect the planes, prosecutors said.

The Bolivians and Mexicans were introduced by Wheeler to an undercover DEA agent, Michael Levine, who posed as a buyer. Levine has since written a book--called “Deep Cover,” which is highly critical of the DEA--and is making the rounds on the TV talk-show circuit.

During meetings in La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Panama, Mexico and Bolivia, DEA agents were told how major traffickers in Bolivia had banded together to form a cooperative to dominate the market, prosecutors said. This association was referred to as “The Corporation,” and Roca dominated it, prosecutors said.

On Dec. 15, 1987, Wheeler and another informant “were introduced to the leader of the group, Roca, who approved the deal,” the $27-million transaction, after “personally meeting with the informants,” prosecutors said.

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Abzug said in defense filings that it is not clear that Roca was at that meeting. Prosecutors insist he was.

On Jan. 14, 1988, the alleged conspirators--not Roca--were arrested in San Diego. One, Jorge Carranza Peniche, was arrested in a La Jolla supermarket parking lot while wearing the uniform of a Mexican army colonel. The defense contended at his trial that he had been discharged from the Mexican army years earlier, as a major.

Abzug said Mendez, shortly after his arrest, gave federal investigators a lengthy tape-recorded statement that clears Roca.

Prosecutors said the 1989 trial against Mendez and the six others is “but a chapter in the government’s case against Roca.” But what more there is has not yet landed in court files. Abzug said in court filings that the lawyers’ pretrial exchange of information already has reached 30,000 pages.

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