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U.S. Announces Largest Undercover Cocaine Operation In History

May 7, 1987

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Three reputed top figures in the Colombian drug trade were among 75 people arrested in three cities to cap what officials say was the largest undercover investigation in federal drug enforcement history.

The 3-year-old ″Operation Pisces″ culminated Wednesday with indictments of 115 people, more than half of whom were arrested in Miami, New York and Los Angeles. Some had already been arrested and others were fugitives; officials said more arrests were possible.

Up to 20 undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents acting as middlemen won the trust of the drug traffickers and then took a cut of the drug money as their split for laundering $116 million over three years and moving it to foreign banks, officials said.

Altogether, the DEA agents handled 325 transactions for the traffickers, as much as $1.5 million at a time, Attorney General Edwin Meese III said.

Simultaneously with Wednesday’s arrests, the government of Panama, using a new law aimed at halting drug money laundering in the Central American country, froze 54 accounts in 18 of that nation’s banks where drug proceeds from Operation Pisces were deposited.

The Panamanian action means that the traffickers’ bank accounts now will be opened to U.S. drug agents, who will try to track the money trail with the goal of seizing all the illicitly gained funds, DEA officials said.

″Operation Pisces says to traffickers the world over that drug assets are everywhere insecure,″ said Meese. ″There will be no safe havens for drug money. We will find it, and we will take it.″

At a Los Angeles news conference, the Panamanian attorney general, Carlos Villalaz, dismissed suggestions that Panamanian banks had been dependent on money laundering, saying ″In Panama we do not live on drug money.″

In Miami, U.S. Attorney Leon Kellner said the investigation focused on money-laundering because ″the major traffickers may not touch the drugs. But there’s one thing they always touch - the money.″

The operation supplied the DEA with enough information to enable state and local authorities to arrest more than 350 people since 1984 and to seize more than 19,000 pounds of cocaine with a wholesale value of $270 million.

To date, the operation has netted $49 million, most of it in cash, along with 95 cars, 15 airplanes and one boat.

It was ″the largest and most successful undercover investigation in federal drug law enforcement history,″ Meese said.

Using the traffickers’ money, the DEA in Miami even purchased a Gulfstream jet that was to have been used to smuggle cocaine into the country.

Among those captured Wednesday were three reputed top leaders of Colombian cocaine trafficking and money laundering cartels, including the alleged operators of two massive drug rings in the United States.

One reputed kingpin, Jose Auli Lopez Chacon, 37, of Bogota, was picked up as he stepped off a jetliner in Miami, where he had been lured from Colombia by undercover agents posing as money launderers, the DEA said.

The DEA said Lopez Chacon is comparable in importance to the notorious ruler of the Medellin drug cartel, Hugo Obando Ochoa, a Colombian fugitive who also was indicted Wednesday in connection with Operation Pisces.

Other reputed drug kingpins arrested Wednesday in Miami were Anibal Zapata, 41, of Medellin, Colombia, and Jacobo Wasserman, 46, identified by the DEA as a Colombian money launderer.

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