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The Beeper, the Pay Phone and the DEA’s ‘Operation Dinero’ : Make a deal to help them and they fix you up with a beeper and a code, then have you calling all over town.

Beepers and pay phones.

For modern-day criminal organizations, they are more important tools than guns or getaway cars.

A prime example: the sophisticated money-laundering “cells” of Colombia’s cocaine cartels.

Make a deal to help them out and they fix you up with a beeper and a code, then have you calling all over town--to a motel pay phone here, a restaurant pay phone there--before you see a dollar of their loot, which then is delivered by a cadre of people whose names you never know.

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So discovered the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in “Operation Dinero,” a three-year sting that helped the Cali cartel launder $39,549,209 in cocaine cash. In the high end of the sting, the feds set up a Caribbean bank to wire-transfer drug traffickers’ funds. But the cash first had to make its way from the streets of the cities where the cocaine was sold, places such as New York, Houston and Los Angeles. And that is where the astonishing beeper-led grunt work came into play.

The details come courtesy of an affidavit recently filed in U.S. District Court tracing the undercover activity of agent Ramona Sanchez, who posed last spring as someone who had contacts with crooked Los Angeles bankers willing to receive huge sums of cash, then wire it out of town. The action starts after a “confidential informant” with ties to the cartel put her in touch with its local cash-handling operatives.

*

April 7, 1994. Sanchez’s pager beeps with a phone number and the code, 62-62, used to indicate an illicit delivery. She calls the number, found to be another pager.

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Her pager beeps again--with the number of a public phone in Huntington Park. A woman who answers says she will call back between 5 and 6 p.m. if everything is “ready to go.”

But after another page instructs Sanchez to call a public phone in the Thailand Plaza on Hollywood Boulevard, she is told by the woman that the delivery will be the next day, and that it is going to be “seven,” meaning $700,000.

April 8, 9:35 a.m. Sanchez’s pager beeps again with the number of a pay phone--this one at Cindy’s Restaurant on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock. It’s busy, so she calls a pager number supplied by her contact.

10:10 a.m. She is paged to call a public phone at the El Rio Motel on East Colorado Boulevard in Glendale. The contact woman says she does not have the entire $700,000 yet and is waiting to hear from the “person.” Sanchez says she will be leaving town that evening and will not be back until April 12.

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2:47 p.m. Sanchez is paged to call another pay phone--at the Bell Motel, also on East Colorado in Glendale. Her contact says she may need Sanchez to supply a car to facilitate delivery of the money on the 12th.

April 12, 9:50 a.m. Her pager beeps with a phone number, but there’s no answer. Then another number beeps up and she calls it--a pay phone at Tony’s Liquor Store on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. The same contact reports that the money will be handed over in two deliveries.

11:03 a.m. Sanchez is paged to call another phone and is told that the first delivery will be at noon, at Toys-R-Us in Rosemead. She is informed that another woman will make the delivery, wearing blue shorts and a gray T-shirt and driving a blue Nissan Sentra.

12:08 p.m. While Sanchez waits outside the toy store, other agents stationed nearby, in plainclothes, spot the woman in blue shorts. “Jane Doe 1,” about 30 years old and weighing 200 pounds, exits the store and walks up to Sanchez. They head to the middle of the parking lot, where “Jane Doe 1" gets into the Sentra--from a Redondo Beach rental agency, it turns out--and drives it next to Sanchez’s car. The hefty woman takes two black nylon duffel bags from the Sentra and places them in the agent’s trunk.

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After Sanchez drives off, the surveillance squad observes “Jane Doe 1" go back in the toy store and then emerge with another woman--later determined to be the one who set up the delivery by phone.

The duffel bags are found to contain $493,917.

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So it continued after that, one beep after another, directing the agent-posing-as-money-launderer to call a succession of pay phones.

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The process makes wiretapping techniques all but worthless. Instead, scores of officers from various Los Angeles-area police agencies had to be recruited for the distinctly old-fashioned surveillance necessary to follow the women who generally made the cash deliveries, trying to turn the Jane Does into defendants.

The deliveries went on for several weeks: April 13, outside a Fuddruckers restaurant in Pasadena, two suitcases, $697,113. April 18, back at the Toys-R-Us, two nylon suitcases, $872,077. . . .

An April 25 delivery outside the Robinsons-May store at the Montebello Town Center was aborted when one suspect “felt like she was being followed.” But that same afternoon, they were back on the beepers until $5 million was collected around Los Angeles and, with the cooperation of a local bank, wired to the front companies set up for the sting in Atlanta.

Of course, money-launderers are hardly the only conspirators who have embraced the beeper-pay phone parlay.

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Mafia guys have long known the risks of talking business over any regular phone. Stick on a wiretap and you hear one remind another, “There’s somebody listening.”

Teen-age drug dealers are no dumber. A few years ago, Venice activists complained how pay phones along the beach were turning the place into a “drug supermarket.” The phone company then made them “origination-only phones,” meaning they would not take incoming calls. It was a noble gesture, but those in the know scoffed that it would make little difference because most veteran crack dealers carried beepers to get incoming messages.

And as more than one television movie has pointed out, Long Island teen-ager Amy Fisher carried a beeper to class so she could be paged by customers of, well, a different sort.

In California, beepers have been banned in high schools since 1988, in part because of the criminal uses. Yet some youngsters caught with the devices have conspiracies other than drug deals in mind when they beep each other to call a pay phone at the mall: after all, it’s not a bad way to set up a date without the folks overhearing, or being badgered about hogging the household phone line.

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