Two Colombian immigrants who headed a huge international cocaine ring have been sentenced to 19 and 17 years in prison.

The sentence is part of a major case in which 32 others have also pleaded guilty or been convicted in Britain.

The convictions and sentences became public Friday when the last of the defendants ended her case by pleading guilty and a judge lifted an order that had barred the media from reporting on the proceedings at Southwark Crown Court in south London.

Jesús Aníbal Ruiz-Henao, 45, and his brother-in-law Mario Tascón, 32, both Colombian immigrants, were convicted of heading a network that imported huge amounts of cocaine into Britain, possibly up to $1.75 billion worth over 10 years, police said.

The effort that smashed the ring was Britain’s biggest ever non-terrorism police operation, said Detective Chief Supt. Sharon Kerr, head of the Metropolitan Police organized crime unit. Ruiz-Henao, believed to have been the gang’s leader in Britain, was sentenced to 19 years in jail.

Tascón, his deputy, got 17 years. The two, originally from Pereira, Colombia, pleaded guilty in February to money laundering and conspiracy to supply drugs.

They came to Britain in 1990, claiming they were fleeing persecution at home, and won the right to stay. They were arrested in November 2003, after two years of surveillance. Authorities said the drug ring had been Britain’s largest, employing at least 50 people.

It smuggled as much as a ton of cocaine, worth $44.5 million into the country each year, authorities said. Police seized a $6.2 million in cash and 645 kilograms of cocaine during their investigations.

Judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith, who sentenced the two leaders, said in court that their capture was a rare exception, because it is generally difficult to trace those at the top of huge drug rings. “This is because they pay other people to carry out the dangerous work where an arrest is more likely,” he said.

“Meanwhile they make enormous profits from this foul trade.” Authorities were initially conducting two separate investigations, one into drug smuggling and another of money laundering.

Eventually they realized that the two criminal conspiracies were linked. A total of 34 people have pleaded guilty or been convicted in Britain of money laundering or drug crimes in the case. Fourteen others have been arrested in Colombia.

Authorities said the ring’s cocaine was usually sent by ship from Colombia to Spain or Portugal, where it would be smuggled ashore in small boats and then trucked to Britain. Smugglers would cover bundles of cocaine in mustard to disguise the smell from sniffer dogs, hide it in fruit or embed it in clothing or plastic.

Proceeds were laundered back to Colombian drug cartels through front companies or taken in cash by couriers who swallowed condoms stuffed with $120, investigators said.

Among the others convicted were William Ruiz-Henao, 33, of east London, sentenced to 16 years in jail, and Ramón Navarro, 39, of Almeria, Spain, given 18 years for conspiracy to supply drugs.

Roque García-Martínez, 31, of Almeria, and Iván García Ospina, 31, north London, were sentenced to 13 and 16 years in prison respectively, also for conspiracy to supply drugs.

[Source: The Daily Journal, London, UK, 07Jan06]

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