updated 10/18/2006 2:18:56 PM ET 2006-10-18T18:18:56

Law enforcement agents broke up a Colombian money-laundering ring Wednesday, arresting 26 people in three countries and seizing more than $16.5 million in cash and drugs, drug enforcement officials said.

Arrests were made in Bogota and Cali, Colombia; New York, New Jersey, Florida and London, according to Drug Enforcement Administration officials.

More than $10 million in alleged drug profits and more than $6.5 million in cocaine, heroin and marijuana were seized in the operation conducted by DEA, the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service, New York city and state police and Suffolk County police, authorities said.

In one court document filed in U.S. District Court, New York Police Detective Jon Paul Figueroa said the scheme was used to process some of the billions of dollars generated each year by Colombian drug dealers.

He said narcotics traffickers used the Colombian black market peso exchange to disguise the source of income.

As part of the probe, he said, Colombian law enforcement authorities obtained judicial authorization to intercept telephones used by various peso brokers in Colombia.

He said the Colombian officers also identified money launderers in the New York City area, including some of the defendants, who were collecting and distributing drug proceeds in coordination with their criminal associates in Colombia.

Insiders used in sting
He said the probe also relied on multiple confidential informants who worked with undercover officers posing as people in New York who were able to receive narcotics proceeds and place them into the U.S. banking system to be laundered through the peso exchange.

In one scheme, officials said, a peso broker in Colombia arranged to launder illegal drug money located in New York. He arranged for other defendants to collect the cash and turn it over to another defendant who used it to buy used truck parts from a scrap yard he controlled in Lindenhurst, N.J. The parts were shipped to Venezuela and Colombia and resold for pesos, the officials said.

U.S. agents obtained seizure warrants for bank accounts throughout the United States that they said had been used to aid the laundering. Colombian agents conducted 24 searches in Bogota and Cali.

The defendants include people from every level of the operations — peso brokers in Colombia, their criminal confederates in the United States and Colombian business people who knowingly acquired the cheap drug dollars to buy imports, the officials said.

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