April 4, 2006

Colombia cartel smuggled cocaine on airline: US

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Colombian drug cartel recruited
Colombian airline employees and police in an unsuccessful
attempt to smuggle more than $10 million worth of cocaine into
the United States, U.S. federal authorities said on Tuesday.

An employee of Avianca Airlines, former Colombian police
officers belonging to the Norte Valle Cartel and current police
officers were among seven people arrested on Monday in Bogota.

In addition, about $10 million worth of cocaine was seized
in a Bogota warehouse used by the cartel, the U.S. Drug
Enforcement Administration said in a statement.

The jailed suspects face narcotics charges for smuggling
cocaine through El Dorado International Airport in a failed bid
to import the drug to the United States, according to an
indictment unsealed on Tuesday in Manhattan federal court.

The suspects, including a former national police major and
a former police lieutenant and captain belonging to the cartel,
are being held in Colombia and face extradition to the United
States, the DEA said.

If convicted, the accused face a minimum sentence of 10
years in prison and a forfeiture of $10 million.

In October an Avianca employee, four cartel members and two
police officers stationed at El Dorado helped smuggle cocaine
through Avianca's cargo facility and onto a commercial flight
to Mexico City, where it was seized by Mexican authorities, the
DEA said.

The drug cartel bribed airline employees and police
officers to sign cargo receipt forms and move 10 boxes of
cocaine weighing 409 kg (900 pounds) through security knowing
it was destined for the United States, the indictment said.

Avianca, Colombia's biggest airline, operates daily flights
from El Dorado to Mexico and the United States.

In October 2005, authorities extradited the former head of
the anti-drug unit at El Dorado on heroin smuggling charges
from Colombia to United States.