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Woman Accused of Running Cocaine Ring Is Extradited to U.S.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Colombian woman accused of running a female-dominated drug trafficking ring that distributed thousands of kilograms of cocaine in the United States since 1986 has been extradited from Brazil to face federal charges in New York and Los Angeles.

Known among her associates as La Senora, Mery Valencia, 44, operated a sophisticated crime organization from her home base in Cali, Colombia, U.S. authorities said.

Nearly every one of her top lieutenants was a woman and some of them brought their daughters into the ring, according to an indictment unsealed in New York.

In Southern California, authorities said, Valencia maintained a network of stash houses where large drug shipments were stored after being smuggled across the Mexican border.

Valencia, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was flown to New York on Tuesday night from Rio de Janeiro, where she had been under arrest since 1997 when she arrived to attend the annual Carnival.

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The Brazilian Supreme Court rejected her appeals to block extradition to the United States.

“This investigation illustrates the efforts of law enforcement in the dismantling of drug organizations by focusing on their top echelon and leaders,” Assistant FBI Director Timothy P. McNally said in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Valencia was tracked down in Brazil by agents working out of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office. They were present when Brazilian authorities seized her at the Rio airport. She was carrying false identification papers and had undergone plastic surgery to disguise her appearance, authorities said.

A search of her luggage turned up a ledger bearing a list of names, next to which were dollar amounts, according to court documents. Valencia reportedly told Brazilian law enforcement officials that the ledger represented the names and amounts owed by customers in a body lotion business she operated.

But U.S. agents said in a court affidavit that the ledger actually contained a list of members of her drug organization. They said the ledger also detailed how Valencia’s syndicate smuggled drugs into and cash out of the United States.

Money was wired back to Cali in amounts just under $10,000 to skirt federal reporting requirements, investigators said.

Currency also was stuffed in luggage with secret compartments and mailed in packages, they said.

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According to an extradition affidavit by Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph A. Brandolino in Los Angeles, Valencia “organized, supervised and managed” the distribution of large quantities of cocaine at apartments throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties. The shipments ranged between 300 and 600 kilos, he said.

The cocaine was then turned over to big-time buyers, usually by a prearranged car switch in which a drug-laden vehicle would be driven away by the customers, he said.

In 1989, law enforcement authorities seized 431 kilograms of cocaine--about half a ton--stored in what was described as a Valencia stash house in Costa Mesa.

Although many of her low-level workers were subsequently arrested and convicted, authorities said Valencia continued operating in Southern California until her arrest.

The Los Angeles indictment charges her with conspiracy and distribution of cocaine. In New York, she faces charges of narcotics trafficking and money laundering. She was indicted there along with a sister, Luz Dary Valencia-Castrillon, who still lives in Colombia and handled money laundering for the ring, according to prosecutors. Other family members who allegedly took part in the operation also remain at large.

Shortly after Mery Valencia was apprehended in Brazil, 36 suspected members of her organization were arrested in New York, New Jersey and Florida. Thirty-two have pleaded guilty to narcotics trafficking and money laundering charges.

Brandolino, who is handling the Los Angeles case, said Valencia will be prosecuted first in New York. If convicted on the charges lodged in Los Angeles, she could be sentenced to life in prison.


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