Image: Drug bandit
AP
In this May photo released by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Rudy Martinez, left, is shown in the custody of a DEA agent whose face was digitized to protect his identity. Federal authorities say Ramirez, along with Franklin Acosta de Vargas, ran a robbery crew that posed as police, then tortured those they took into "custody" to get the location of massive stashes of cocaine and cash.
updated 7/18/2008 4:08:19 PM ET 2008-07-18T20:08:19

They bound their victims with duct tape, beat them and held guns to their heads. When that didn't work, the bandits applied pliers to their genitals and pressed hot irons to the soles of their feet. Sometimes they held victims' heads under water in a bathtub.

Prosecutors say the torture was inflicted by a brazen New York gang that impersonated police officers and preyed on rival drug dealers along the East Coast, stealing their money and cocaine. The crime spree netted more than 1,650 pounds of cocaine worth $20 million and $4 million in cash. At least 100 people were injured.

The gang "was breathtaking in the scope of its crimes and in the danger it posed to our communities," said U.S. Attorney Benton Campbell when he announced charges against Franklin Acosta de Vargas and others earlier this year.

Court papers and a recent interview with an investigator provide a glimpse into the gang and the illegal immigrant who masterminded its operation over three years.

Acosta De Vargas, 36, has pleaded not guilty to robbery, conspiracy, drug dealing and an array of other crimes, and faces 40 years to life behind bars if convicted. His attorney declined to comment.

In the universe of drug dealing and stealing, the 5-foot-11, 300-pound Acosta De Vargas distinguished himself by "running the robberies professionally, with patience and as much control as possible," said the investigator, who was part of a team from the Drug Enforcement Administration, New York Police Department and New York State Police. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing and because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Acosta De Vargas, who, like all of his gang members, was from the Dominican Republic, had his first brush with federal authorities in 2000, when he was charged with heroin dealing. He was deported about a year later.

But by the fall of 2003, investigators say, he was back in the country devising a crooked get-rich-quick scheme using tactics from the police playbook: His gang paid informants to provide the names and whereabouts of traffickers around New York City. After that, his men conducted surveillance for days or even weeks, sometimes using satellite tracking devices and a laptop computer.

Torture tactics
Once the gang had a fix on its targets' daily routines, it would use fake squad cars equipped with lights and sirens to stop their prey at gunpoint, handcuff them and haul them away. Interrogations and torture were conducted at dingy hideouts referred to as "huecos," Spanish for "hole."

They allegedly bound their victims with duct tape, beat them and held guns to their heads to get them to reveal information. Using bathtubs, they simulated drownings by repeatedly submerging victims' heads, court papers said.

Other times, the gang gained entry into victims' homes by identifying themselves as police officers, then holding entire families hostage at gunpoint for days on end. In one instance, 17 people were kidnapped at once.

One victim told investigators that during a 2005 abduction, two gang members "applied a pair of pliers to the victim's testicles and threatened to squeeze the pliers if the victim did not talk," the papers said. The investigator said the crew also applied hot irons to the soles of peoples' feet.

Once the information was extracted, the bandits would pocket the cash. The cocaine was resold on the streets of New York.

Victims join gangsters
The gangsters' hunting grounds eventually expanded to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida. They became so adept that sometimes even people they robbed "ended up working for them because they were so impressed," the investigator said.

Investigators were told the burly boss was quick to fire crew members who were unreliable or stepped out of line. One man was dismissed after he fondled a woman who was abducted.

Despite his success, Acosta De Vargas never lived extravagantly, the investigator said. But he did have one indulgence: Johnnie Walker Blue. On weekends, he would host parties for his crew at a Bronx bar, ordering up five bottles of the scotch whiskey, which can run $200 a bottle.

But his weakness for alcohol cost him in 2006, when police in Queens stopped him on suspicion of drunken driving. On court paperwork, he claimed he was unemployed and living with his girlfriend, and that she was paying their $1,450 rent.

With Acosta De Vargas behind bars, one of his lieutenants, Rudy Martinez, kept the operation alive, court papers said. But by then, he was under police surveillance, even as he did his own reconnaissance on potential targets.

In early 2007, Martinez allegedly had his eye on a dealer holding several pounds of cocaine and several thousand dollars in cash. But court papers said a team of officers who were tailing him arrested him before he carry out the kidnapping and robbery.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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