One of the world’s most hunted drug traffickers — accused of shipping more than 70 tons of cocaine to the United States — has been arrested in Brazil as part of an international crackdown, officials said Wednesday.
Colombian-born Pablo Rayo Montano, who had been on the run for a decade, was captured Tuesday in Sao Paulo as part of an operation coordinated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and involving anti-drug police in eight other countries.
More than three dozen others were arrested during simultaneous raids in the United States and Latin America, U.S. and Colombian anti-drug officials said. Authorities also seized control of three islands off the coast of Panama, a trove of artwork, real estate holdings, yachts and millions in cash.
“The Rayo-Montano trafficking organization ranked up there with Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel in terms of the amount of cocaine it was able to smuggle into the United States,” Dave Gaddis, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Bogota, Colombia, told The Associated Press.
Colombia-based Escobar was among the world’s most notorious drug traffickers, ruling the illegal drug trade during the 1980s. He was killed in a shootout with police in 1993.
Called Twin Oceans, the operation targeted a major drug cartel that shipped cocaine from clandestine ports along Colombia’s coast to the United States and Europe.
‘Private, rogue navy’
“The Rayo-Montano organization had its own private, rogue navy to run a drug business that was nearly as sophisticated as a small nation,” said DEA administrator Karen P. Tandy in a press release.
Also arrested were Rayo-Montano’s top deputies — Jackson Orozco-Gil, his brother Domingo, and Mars Micolta-Hurtado — who allegedly oversaw operations along Colombia's Caribbean coast.
The DEA said nine countries have been involved in the investigation for three years. It said that during that period the countries — Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Mexico and the United States — have arrested more than 100 people and seized 47.5 tons of cocaine and nearly $70 million in assets.
“It’s estimated the amount of cocaine supplied by this organization was enough to poison 37 million consumers,” Colombia’s anti-narcotics police said in a statement.
Six arrests in United States
Of the more than 30 arrests Tuesday, six were in the United States, including one in Los Angeles in which a federal agent posed as a pizza deliveryman, a DEA official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the operation. Four people were arrested in Miami and one in Indianapolis.
The Justice Department considered Montano a key target, accusing him of running one of the world’s largest drug smuggling operations from Sao Paulo, where he had lived for the past three years.
DEA officials said the United States would seek to extradite Montano.
Colombian police said Montano began trafficking drugs in the early 1990s from the Pacific port of Buenaventura and rose to prominence within the now-defunct Cali cartel.
Police said that in Brazil, Montano set up a number of companies, including an art gallery, to launder proceeds from the monthly sale of an estimated 22 tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe.