Hector Tapia Anchondo, a Texas man whose rented Sylmar warehouse was the site of the largest cocaine seizure in history, was found guilty Tuesday of drug charges and of running a massive criminal conspiracy.
Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles said Tapia, 40, was the kingpin of the largest cocaine transportation operation ever. On Sept. 29, 1989, Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided the Sylmar warehouse and discovered 21.4 tons of cocaine inside--enough to get one-quarter of the world's population high on cocaine, according to DEA estimates.
The Sylmar seizure made national headlines and stunned residents of the tree-lined community. Prosecutors James Walsh and Susan Bryant-Deason described it as "just the tip of the iceberg" of Tapia's international cocaine ring.
"The convictions in the Sylmar case are especially gratifying because they represent the dismantling of the largest cocaine transportation organization discovered to date," U.S. Atty. Terree A. Bowers said after the jury's verdicts were delivered in the Los Angeles courtroom of U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter.
Tapia and co-defendant Hugo Fernando Castillon-Alvarez--a native of Mexico who was working in the U.S. as a dentist--both were convicted on charges that they conspired to distribute cocaine. In addition, Tapia was convicted of being the principal administrator of a continuing criminal enterprise, a crime that carries a mandatory life sentence in federal prison.
Several other defendants already have been convicted in connection with the Tapia organization. One suspect who prosecutors say ran the organization's Mexican operations is on trial in that country.
Tuesday's verdicts came after an eight-week trial during which the government called roughly 50 witnesses to testify about the organization and its operations.
Some of the witnesses recounted enormous shipments of cocaine, far exceeding those in any other case, officials said. According to Walsh and Bryant-Deason, Tapia's organization shipped 5,000 tons of cocaine to Los Angeles every week, starting in late 1987 and continuing up to the time that authorities broke up the ring in 1989.
Witnesses said Tapia and his associates would pick up the cocaine in Mexico and bring it across the border into El Paso. Once in the United States, the cocaine would be shipped to Los Angeles, where it was broken into smaller shipments of a ton or so and distributed, Walsh said.
The value of the cocaine in the Sylmar warehouse alone was estimated at $6 billion. In addition, authorities seized other shipments about the same time, rounding up a total of 33 tons of cocaine during a 89-day span in 1989, Walsh said.
"It would have impressed Ross Perot," Walsh said of the money that changed hands in the ring's operation.
The convictions were cheered by DEA agents, who said Tapia was a key figure linking U.S. traffickers to the Cali and Medellin cocaine cartels in Colombia.
"This guy was the head of the Department of Transportation for the cocaine cartels," said Ralph Lochridge, a spokesman for the DEA's Los Angeles office. "These verdicts are a major victory against a major drug peddler."
According to Bryant-Deason, at the time that Tapia and his associates were arrested, they were planning to clear out their remaining stores of cocaine and take a break from the business while collecting on past debts.
Tapia was picked up in Las Vegas, where some of his cohorts were planning to join him, Bryant-Deason said.
"They just decided they were going on vacation," she said. "They had gone to Las Vegas to party."