Jailed Columbian drug barons supplied every major UK city

Publisher: Jon Land
Published: 06/01/2006 - 12:55:45 PM

Two Colombian drug barons who ran one of the UK's biggest ever cocaine cartels for several years are serving jail sentences of 19 and 17 years, it can be revealed today.
Former asylum seekers Jesus Anibal Ruiz-Henao, 45, and his brother-in-law Mario Tascon, 32, headed a network which imported cocaine worth tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of pounds into the country through a variety of devious means.
The scope of their network, which supplied drugs to every major UK city, was such that after their arrest the price of cocaine on the streets shot up by 50%.
It was considered by the authorities to be the UK's largest drug distribution network, employing at least 50 people.
Full details of the cartel - and the police operation to smash it - could not be revealed until today.
More than 30 other people have been involved in a series of linked cases, which were covered by reporting restrictions until this morning when the last of the defendants pleaded guilty to an offense of assisting another to retain the benefits of drug trafficking at London's Southwark Crown Court.
The main players in the cocaine cartel were Ruiz-Henao and Tascon.
The pair, from the Colombian town of Pereira, arrived in Britain as asylum seekers in 1990, claiming they were fleeing persecution in their home country. They were granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
By the time of their arrest in November 2003, they were running an empire which is thought may have smuggled as much as a tonne of cocaine - around £25 million worth - into the country each year at its height.
According to senior detectives who smashed the racket, Ruiz-Henao was effectively the "sales distribution manager" for cocaine in the UK. He was the network's number one and Tascon was his deputy.
The two considered themselves to be untouchable.
Their capture was the result of a four-year investigation by the National Crime Squad and the Colombian authorities.
It was running in tandem to a Scotland Yard investigation, which began in 2001, into a linked money laundering racket. More than 60 people have been arrested in the UK in connection with the two cases.
A total of £3,500,000 in cash and 645kg of cocaine was seized by police during the course of the two investigations.
Ruiz-Henao and Tascon were under surveillance for two years.
One of the most significant swoops during the operation to smash the gang was the seizure of a lorry in Thurrock, in Essex in which 72 kilos of cocaine were hidden in pallets.
Ruiz-Henao, of Hendon Way, Hendon, north London and Tascon, of Hampton, Broadhead Strand, Hendon, both pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply Class A drugs at a hearing last year.
They were jailed for 19 years and 17 years respectively at London's Southwark Crown Court.
They also both pleaded guilty to money laundering, for which Ruiz-Henao received 10 years and Tascon nine years - to run concurrently.
Sentencing the pair, Judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith said those who ran the drugs industry were "very rarely caught".
"This is because they pay other people to carry out the dangerous work where an arrest is more likely," he said
"Their fingerprints are not found on the drug packaging, no telephone is shown to have made relevant calls, nothing incriminating is found in their homes.
"Others carry out their tasks. Meanwhile they make enormous profits from this foul trade."
Fortunately Jesus Ruiz-Henao and Mario Tascon were a rare and welcome exception. An extensive investigation resulted in a "compelling" case against them.
The judge added: "There is only a small distinction between importers and distributors and in this case where all the parties are Colombian and you Ruiz-Henao and Tascon are as high in the organisation as you are, I think the distinction is almost non-existent.
"You Ruiz-Henao were, as you accept, a senior figure in the organisation in this country. I haven't seen evidence of anyone more senior."
They would be recommended for deportation on their release, the judge told them.
Two other members of the network, Wimar de Jesus Ospina Castano, 35, of Trulock Court, Tottenham, north London and Jose Manuel Rojes-Pineda, 35, of Plough Way, Rotherhithe, south east London, were each jailed for four years in May last year for money laundering.
Four other men linked to the gang, who were arrested following the seizure of the lorry in Thurrock, were convicted and sentenced in February 2004.
William Ruiz-Henao, 33 - Jesus Anibal's younger brother - of Chatsworth Road, east London, and Ramon Navarro, 39, from Almeira in Spain, were jailed for 16 years and 18 years respectively for conspiracy to supply Class A drugs.
Roque Garcia-Martinez, 31, also from Almeira, and Ivan Garcia Ospina, 31, of Woodlands Park, Haringay, north London, were jailed for 13 and 16 years respectively for the same offence.
The National Crime Squad (NCS) and Scotland Yard initially began separate investigations into the activities of the network.
The NCS were looking at a drug smuggling ring - Operation Habitat - the Metropolitan Police at a money laundering racket - Operation Anuric.
It was not until later that the agencies realised the two were linked. The drug smugglers were using the money launderers.
A total of 26 other people linked to either the drug smuggling or money laundering sides of the network have already either pleaded guilty or been convicted of various offences.
Police later revealed that the drug-smuggling network was feared to have brought cocaine with a street value of £1 billion into the UK over the course of a decade.
Detective Superintendent Martin Molloy, from the National Crime Squad, said: "We are looking at the possibility of the first billion-pound drugs cartel that we have ever dealt with."
Detectives are basing their estimates on the street value of the drugs the gang is thought to have smuggled into the country - around a ton and a half of cocaine each year.
The wholesale value of the drug is around £27,000 a kilo, but the street price can be as much as between £70,000 and £100,000 a kilo, depending on purity.
Mr Molloy added: "The indication is that they have been running it (the network) for almost 10 years."
The sentences for those jailed both here and in Colombia in connection with the racket total 350 years, police revealed today.
Detectives also said they suspected that as many as 20,000 people could have been involved in the operation, mainly in Colombia, collecting the drug money which was transferred there in small quantities of less than £500 a time.
A total of two tons of drugs was seized during the course of the investigations into the network's activities - a quarter of which was cocaine, the rest was cannabis.
The money laundering side of the operation handled tens of millions of pounds.
In one year £20 million went through two cafes in north London.
Almost £3 million of assets has been confiscated from members of the gang, including cars and houses.
Copyright Press Association 2006