10-year manhunt ends with arrest of drug kingpin

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 May, 2006, 12:00am

One of the world's most-hunted drug traffickers - whose organisation compared in size to that of late drug lord Pablo Escobar - has been arrested in Brazil after a decade on the run.

Pablo Rayo-Montano was captured on Tuesday at his home in Sao Paulo as part of a three-year operation spearheaded by the US Drug Enforcement Agency and police in Brazil, Panama and Colombia.

More than three dozen others were arrested during simultaneous raids in the United States and Latin America, officials said. Also seized were three islands owned by Rayo-Montano off the coast of Panama and a trove of expensive artwork, yachts, real estate holdings and millions in cash.

The cartel allegedly used speedboats, cargo vessels and submarine-like vessels to ship more than 15 tonnes of cocaine a month from clandestine Colombian ports to the United States and Europe, officials said.

'The Rayo-Montano trafficking organisation 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,' said Dave Gaddis, head of the DEA in Bogota, Colombia.

Escobar, history's most notorious drug trafficker, led the now defunct Medellin cocaine cartel and was shot dead by police in December 1993. Much of the drug trafficking industry was subsequently taken over by Colombia's Cali Cartel.

The latest operation targeted the network allegedly run by Jackson Orozco-Gil and the brothers Domingo and Mars Micolta-Hurtado from Colombia's Caribbean coast. All three were arrested on Tuesday in Colombia and Panama.

But the godfather of the organisation, the DEA said, was 'Don Pablo', who managed the multinational empire from Sao Paulo, where he's been living for the past three years. 'The Rayo-Montano organisation had its own private rogue navy to run a drug business that was nearly as sophisticated as a small nation,' said DEA administrator Karen Tandy.

As a result of the investigation, officials in nine countries - Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Mexico and the United States - arrested more than 100 people and seized 47.5 tonnes of cocaine and nearly US$70 million in assets throughout the world, the DEA said.

Of the more than 30 arrests on Tuesday, six were made in the US, including one in Los Angeles in which a federal agent posed as a pizza deliverer. Four people were arrested in Miami. One arrest was made in Indianapolis.

The US Department of Justice considered the Rayo-Montano organisation one of its top drug targets, with an infrastructure capable of everything from the production of cocaine and heroin in Colombia to smuggling and wholesale distribution in Europe and the US.

'It's estimated the amount of cocaine supplied by this organisation was enough to poison 37 million consumers,' Colombia's anti-narcotics police said.

DEA officials said the United States would seek to extradite Rayo-Montano so that he could stand trial in an American court. But a spokesman for the federal police in Sao Paulo said he could be extradited only after first being tried in Brazil.

Rayo-Montano is believed to have fled to his islands in Panama in 1996 after being charged with drug trafficking by a Colombian court. When authorities learned of his whereabouts, Rayo-Montano escaped on a fishing boat and eventually surfaced in Brazil, police said.

Police said that in Brazil, Rayo-Montano set up a number of companies, including an art gallery in an upscale district, to launder drug proceeds.