SAO PAULO (Reuters) - An alleged Colombian drug lord was arrested in Brazil on Tuesday and he could be extradited to face U.S. charges that he smuggled billions of dollars worth of cocaine into the United States.
Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, 44, was seized around dawn at a luxury apartment in Aldeia da Serra in Sao Paulo state, police said.
The U.S. government says Ramirez Abadia -- nicknamed Chupeta, or Lollipop -- was a leader of the Cali-based Norte del Valle cartel, and it had offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
Although Ramirez Abadia was not the most prominent of Colombian kingpins, Brazil’s police portrayed him as the biggest cocaine trafficker since the infamous Pablo Escobar was killed by Colombian police in 1993.
“This criminal became the new Pablo Escobar of international drug trafficking,” said police superintendent Jaber Saad. “He occupied the space left by Escobar and used the same network as Escobar.”
Ramirez Abadia was responsible for at least 15 murders in the United States, including police, and ordering more than 300 killings in Colombia, Saad said.
He said Brazilian police acted after U.S. authorities sent an extradition request for Ramirez Abadia last week and that the Supreme Court was processing the U.S. request.
In a March 2004 indictment issued by a federal grand jury in Washington, Ramirez Abadia is accused of shipping about 500 tons of cocaine worth in excess of $10 billion from Colombia to the United States between 1990 and 2004.
Police said the network targeted in Tuesday’s sweep exported huge quantities of cocaine and also heroin to Europe and the United States and laundered the profits in Brazil via Spain, Mexico and Uruguay. It allegedly invested the money in real estate, including mansions and hotels, industry and cars.
The police operation was carried out with the cooperation of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Spanish and Uruguayan police. U.S. agents flew in to take part in raids across six states, a Brazilian police source said.
In the apartment where Ramirez Abadia was seized, police found $544,000 in cash as well as 150,000 euros and 55,000 reads, Saad said. They also discovered about 150 cell phones and a collection of expensive watches.
The investigation began three years ago when police discovered Ramirez Abadia was in Brazil. They found out last week that he was planning to leave the country.
He had undergone three plastic surgeries in the past two years to disguise himself, Saad added.
Ramirez Abadia was previously indicted in the United States in 1994 and 1996 but the Colombian government turned down extradition requests.
He has served prison time in Colombia but carried on his drug trafficking activities from behind bars.
The U.S. government said Ramirez Abadia also smuggled thousands of tons of cocaine to Texas, California and New York in the mid-1990s, setting up a financial network using a Colombian pharmaceutical distribution company as a front.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, speaking in Bogota, welcomed the arrest: “The important message is that the richest and most powerful people fall.”