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Colombia busts store chain for cocaine links

Colombian authorities seized control of the country’s largest drugstore chain on Friday, alleging that it was created and expanded with the use of illegal drug trafficking money.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Backed by 4,000 police officers, the Colombian government seized control of the nation’s largest pharmacy chain on Friday, saying its creation and expansion had been funded by cocaine trafficking.

Prosecutors and police took over more than 400 stores in 28 cities carrying the name Drogas La Rebaja, which translates from Spanish as Discount Drugs, in Colombia’s largest-ever seizure of properties linked to drug traffickers.

Officials entered some of the stores late Thursday, but the operation picked up steam on Friday. Police said all the stores would be under government control by Saturday.

“This is going to be a lengthy process, because the scope is gigantic,” Alfonso Plazas, head of the National Drug Directorate, told The Associated Press. “This is the most important seizure of assets belonging to the mafia in Colombia’s history.”

The value of the seized properties was estimated at $216 million, authorities said.

Uribe bolsters confiscation process
The agency has seized more than 1,000 other properties since President Alvaro Uribe’s administration streamlined the confiscation process more than a year ago.

Plazas said most of the chain’s 4,200 employees did not have to worry about their jobs, but about 50 who have knowingly “been serving the interests of the Cali cartel” would be replaced.

The Cali cartel controlled global cocaine trafficking in the 1990s after the demise of the rival Medellin cartel, shipping hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States and beyond. The family has owned Drogas Rebaja for years.

The cartel’s leaders, brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, were arrested in the 1990s. But in an indictment last December, U.S. authorities said they continue to run their drug-trafficking operation from prison.

The National Drug Directorate has the option of running the pharmacy chain or hiring another company to do so.

In the meantime, the agency will name a general manager to make sure the stores keep running and profits do not wind up in the hands of traffickers, Plazas said, adding the profits will now be used to further wage the war on drugs in the world’s biggest cocaine-producing nation.

Cali cartel is ‘history’
Col. Oscar Naranjo, commander of the Judicial Police, said the confiscation of the chain marked the death knell of the Cali cartel. Most of Colombia’s cocaine is now run by leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitary groups, and the North Valley cartel, which operates near the southwestern city of Cali.

“I believe that the Cali cartel, with this move, is a theme of the past and is now goes down as part of this country’s criminal history,” Naranjo told the AP. “Here, we are definitely closing the circle, and providing to the state properties that were illegally acquired.”

In Cali, where the chain is based, dozens of its employees, some wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with “Let us work,” demonstrated in front of the city’s cathedral because they feared for their jobs. Cali is 185 miles southwest of Bogota.

But other employees appeared to accept assurances that their jobs were secure.

“We do believe that the authorities are not going to bother us because we are working above board, and our work is honorable,” said Martha Quintero, an administrator of a Drogas Rebaja in Bogota, the capital.

The U.S. Treasury Department on Tuesday listed Drogas La Rebaja and 22 other companies as having illicit links to the Cali cartel or Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela.