HOUSTON, TEXAS (USDOJ.Today) A total of three Colombian nationals associated with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional aka ELN), a paramilitary group designated as a foreign terrorist organization, have been taken into Colombian custody at the request of the United States on charges alleging a 20-year international drug conspiracy.
“When my predecessor visited Colombia last year, he said to approximately 100 Colombian National police officers that he was directing all U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) components stationed at the U.S. Embassy, to include FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and our DOJ Attaches, to make cases against ELN a top priority,” said Attorney General William Barr. “These enforcement efforts against six ELN members including federal criminal charges against ELN leader Wilver Villegas-Palomino reaffirms our commitment in dismantling and disrupting this narco-terrorist group. The United States and Colombia have a shared mission of combatting narco-trafficking and narco-terrorism and the long-standing cooperation and teamwork between U.S. and Colombian law enforcement is stronger in addressing transnational crime and weakening foreign terrorist organizations.”
“Colombia is an excellent law enforcement partner,” said U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick. “They made a commitment to work with the United States combatting ELN’s narco-terrorism. With major cities acting as drug trafficking hubs, the Southern District of Texas is uniquely situated in continuing our prosecution of these cases and working with our Colombian colleagues.”
Colombian authorities arrested Yamit Picon-Rodriguez aka Choncha, 36, Jose Gabriel Alvarez-Ortiz aka Alex, 26, and Henry Trigos-Celon aka Moncho Picada, 43, based on a provisional arrest request of the United States.
Suspected ELN leader Villegas-Palomino aka Carlos El Puerco, 38, is also charged and considered a fugitive as are Jaime Miguel Picon-Rodriguez aka Chencho and Jairo, 38, and Diomedes Barbosa-Montaño aka El Burro, 38. A warrant remains outstanding for their arrests. Anyone with information about their whereabouts is asked to contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or submit tips online at tips.fbi.gov.
A federal grand jury in Houston returned the three-count indictment Feb. 12. All six defendants are charged with distribution of a controlled substance, knowing or intending to provide anything of pecuniary value to a person or organization that engages in terrorism or terrorist activity (narco-terrorism), participating in an international cocaine distribution conspiracy and international cocaine distribution.
According to the indictment, Villegas-Palomino and his co-defendants were involved in an ongoing 20-year conspiracy to distribute cocaine from Colombia to the United States knowing or intending to provide pecuniary support to the ELN.
In early 2019, Villegas-Palomino, Picon-Rodriguez, Trigos-Celon, Barbosa-Montaño and Alvarez-Ortiz also allegedly participated in distributing approximately 30 kilograms of cocaine in Colombia having reasonable cause to believe it would be imported into the United States.
“The success of Operation Catatumbo Lightning was a direct result of the outstanding collaboration between the FBI and many of our law enforcement and military partners both here in the United States and in Colombia,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “These arrests should serve as a warning that the FBI will relentlessly target and disrupt any narco-terrorist activity that threatens the health and safety of the American people and our international community.”
“As alleged, for decades, ELN produced and exported tons of cocaine to the U.S., using communities in America to fund their terrorist activities,” said DEA Acting Administrator Timothy J. Shea. “These enforcement actions have dealt a major blow to the ELN and are a true testament to the power of partnerships. DEA remains dedicated to our partners around the globe in the shared mission of bringing narco-terrorists to justice.”
On Oct. 8, 1997, the State Department officially designated ELN as a foreign terrorist organization. It continues to operate as one of the largest narco-terrorism organizations in the world. The U.S. Department of State through its Narcotics Rewards Program, is offering up to a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of Villegas-Palomino.
The Houston Divisions of the FBI and DEA conducted the investigation as part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF). FBI and DEA agents in Bogota provided substantial support as did DOJ’s multi-agency Special Operations Division, including assigned attorneys from the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section and National Security Division as well as the Office of International Affairs with the cooperation of Colombian authorities. Houston Police Department, U.S. Southern Command and international partners including the Colombian Army, National Police, National Prosecutor’s Office and Technical Body of Investigation also provided assistance.
OCDETF brings together the combined expertise and unique abilities of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Its principal mission is to identify, disrupt, dismantle and prosecute high-level members of drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and money laundering organizations and enterprises.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Casey N. MacDonald and Anibal Alaniz of the Southern District of Texas are prosecuting the case.
An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.