Bringing the Fight to Them: Acting U.S. Attorney Ganjei Highlights EDTX’s Successes in International Drug Investigations and Anti-Cartel Prosecutions
Ganjei Emphasizes Eastern District’s Continued Commitment to its Law Enforcement Partners in Their Shared Fight to Bring International Traffickers to Justice
DALLAS, TS (STL.News) Acting United States Attorney Nicholas J. Ganjei addressed the North Texas Crime Commission (NTCC) today via Zoom for their regular monthly meeting.
Acting U.S. Attorney Ganjei was introduced by NTCC Chair David Dean:
“David, thank you so much for that kind introduction. Good morning everyone. I want to thank you all for taking the time to join us on this Veterans Day holiday. To that end, I would especially thank all the fighting men and women that have made incredible sacrifices, and continue to make such sacrifices, to keep our great nation strong and free.
Today I’d like to speak to you about the robust international drug investigation, extradition, and prosecution practice happening in your Eastern District of Texas. Colloquially known as “959” cases, these investigations and prosecutions result in the identification, capture, and conviction of some of the world’s largest and most notorious drug traffickers.
Through joint action with the DEA, HSI, other federal law enforcement partners, as well as our foreign law enforcement counterparts, EDTX can interdict bulk shipments of narcotics before they reach American shores and prosecute those trafficker kingpins who believe themselves above the law simply because they reside overseas. I’d also like to speak to some of EDTX’s success in this space, and how these cases are, and will remain, a priority for the Eastern District.
I want to speak to you today about what the Eastern District and its law enforcement partners are doing to stem the tide of the international drug trade – not just inside the borders of its own district, but on the soil of foreign nations and even on the high seas. But before I do that, it’s probably best that I provide some background on what 959 cases are, and how these cases come to be. Specifically, how does the United States prove its case when the drugs never actually enter the country, and, just as importantly, what is the process for bringing these drug traffickers from their homes to face justice in United States courts?
The international dimension of 959 cases makes them particularly worthwhile endeavors. By looking internationally, EDTX can focus on the investigation and prosecution of the leadership class of these drug trafficking organizations, who invariably reside overseas. When drugs are seized in a routine domestic narcotics investigation, those drugs have already been paid for, and that purchase money is either in the hands of the cartel, or on its way. However, by interdicting drug shipments before they make landfall in the U.S., we can stop this addictive poison from ever infecting our communities, and we can disrupt a lucrative drug transaction from ever taking place.
This has a ripple effect on other related criminal activity, which is often financed by narco-dollars. All of us, for example, have heard how drug cartels are expanding into human smuggling, including the smuggling of children, through our southern border. By depriving cartels and other criminal organizations of drug proceeds, we help prevent other criminal activity—including financial crimes, public corruption, even terrorism—from ever taking root.
The fact of the matter is that most of the illicit drugs consumed in the United States originate in Central and South America. Mexico is the primary supplier of heroin and a major source of methamphetamine smuggled into this country. Similarly, Colombia is the leading producer of cocaine for the United States market. Even illicit drugs manufactured in other parts of the world are smuggled into the United States through many of these same countries via established drug routes. For example, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, precursor chemicals used in the production of illicit fentanyl often originate in China, but typically enter the United States through our southern border with Mexico.
Recognizing this threat, as well as the need to attack the drug problem at its source, the United States has enacted “long-arm” statutes. In the civil context, long-arm statutes apply to a particular state or entity’s ability to exercise jurisdiction beyond its borders. In the criminal context, the idea is somewhat similar, insofar as these laws allow for the prosecution of individuals by the American justice system for narcotics crimes that occurred entirely in other countries. These statutes fall into two primary classes. First, there are narcotics trafficking and conspiracy statutes which are focused on the importation of narcotics into the United States. Second, the United States has maritime statutes which are based on the centuries old concept of the “Law of the Sea,” providing law enforcement with statutory authority for interdiction on the high seas. The Eastern District makes vigorous use of both in its international practice. Allow me to elaborate on both.
21 United States Code Section 959 is a criminal statute intended to reach violations committed outside of the United States. Critically, no act needs to actually occur in the United States. It makes it a crime for a defendant to manufacture or distribute a Schedule 1 or Schedule 2 controlled substance (drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, fentanyl, heroin, and the like), intending that the drug be imported into the United States, knowing that the drug will be imported into the United States, or even having reasonable cause to believe that the drug will be imported into the United States.
Similarly, Title 21 United States Code Section 963 makes it a crime to conspire to commit a violation of Section 959. Here, the agreement to commit the unlawful act is the crime. No overt act ever has to occur, simply an agreement. Collectively, these two statutes give law enforcement a powerful set of tools to disrupt traffickers on their home turf.
The power and effectiveness of these long-arm statutes, however, is most evident when reviewing what we don’t have to prove. The United States does not have to prove that
(1) The suspect ever entered the United States;
(2) That any criminal act occurred in the United States;
(3) That any drugs were actually successfully imported into the United States;
(4) That the suspect knew the buyers or the specific destination for the drugs in the United States; or that
(5) The suspect actually physically delivered or distributed the drugs.
So, against that statutory backdrop, what exactly are we looking for as we investigate and prosecute these international cases? In other words, how do we prove our case? Chiefly, we rely on three key pieces of evidence.
First, we often rely on judicially authorized wiretap evidence. These are typically wiretaps that are authorized and conducted in foreign countries and shared with us as a part of Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (otherwise known as MLATs). In certain limited circumstances, we can intercept communications here in the United States even when the communication occurs entirely outside of our borders because some wireless carriers route all conversations (wherever they might occur) through servers in the United States.
Naturally, this is some of our best evidence because it captures drug negotiations, delivery and payment coordination, and other logistical discussion. And in situations where law enforcement has already interdicted or seized a drug shipment, targets may even openly speak about previous drug seizures—which is sort of the holy grail of establishing relevant conduct.
Second, we also rely on “locally sourced” evidence, that is money, drugs, and other contraband seized in foreign countries, and shared with us in the MLAT process.
Finally, cooperating witnesses are a critical aspect of these cases, just as they are in all of our cases.
To put a finer point on it, though, how do we prove that a suspect knew, or had reasonable cause to believe, that drugs seized in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico or elsewhere were destined for the United States?
The first indicator is quantity. In 959 cases we’re dealing with importation-size quantities, amounts measured in thousands of kilograms—quite literally tons—of illicit narcotics. Long experience tells us that drugs seized in this amount are not intended for distribution on the streets of Bogota or Mexico City, rather these drugs are unfortunately headed for the number one illegal drug-consuming country in the world, the United States.
Just as the hypothetical seizure of ten kilograms of cocaine in a stash house tells the reasonable person that the drugs are intended for distribution as opposed to personal use, the extreme quantities seen in 959 cases is proof of the intended export of the narcotics
Second, experience with prior investigations has demonstrated that traffickers utilize known drugs routes. When drugs are seized leaving the eastern Pacific side of Colombia or the Western Caribbean, those drugs are headed north through Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, with an eventual destination of the United States.
Third, another key piece of evidence demonstrating that a given conspiracy is importing drugs into the United States is the seizure of U.S. currency from traffickers abroad. It is not at all uncommon to find that bulk cash seized in Central or South America is actually United States currency, itself the proceeds of prior drug loads.
Fourth, drug traffickers, like legitimate businessmen, frequently use logos or brands to help advertise and identify their products. When bricks of cocaine are produced and packaged at laboratories in Colombia, they are embossed with logos such as a scorpion, a Texas longhorn, or even the name of the cartel itself—something to signify to the buyer that the packaged drug is of a level of quality that they can trust, as well as a warning to would-be thieves. When kilograms of cocaine are seized in New York, Chicago, Seattle, or right here in Dallas, we can frequently link those bricks to known drug lords and their laboratories through the logos they display.
Lastly, but not least, wire intercepts and cooperating witnesses frequently explicitly discuss the intended destination of the drugs.
Let me know turn to EDTX’s maritime interdiction efforts. Under the nation’s maritime laws, found in Title 46 of the United States Code, there is no need to prove that a group of defendants intended to import a load of narcotics into the United States. Rather, EDTX only needs to prove that the United States has jurisdiction over the vessel itself. Under the laws of the high seas, as codified in Title 46, a sovereign nation has jurisdiction over any vessel on the high seas that is either stateless (meaning it is not flying the flag of any country); or where the flag country consents (in the case of a vessel that is flying a flag).
The Eastern District of Texas coordinates closely with the United States Coast Guard—who have been incredible partners—in order to prosecute many cases involving of these types of seizures. In fact, just last month, we accepted two of these type of seizures for prosecution in our district, one with 1.8 tons of cocaine and another with 4.2 tons of cocaine. Collectively, that is six tons of cocaine that will never reach American towns, and that’s several million dollars that will never reach the wallets of the cartel.
Allow me to provide an example from an already resolved case. A few years ago, a group of Colombian drug traffickers that were targeted by EDTX had arranged to transfer over one ton of cocaine to a vessel which was floating several hundred miles off of the west coast of the Galapagos Islands.
When the United States Coast Guard approached the ship, they discovered that it was a Chinese fishing vessel. The Chinese government, in the first known case of its kind, consented to the United States taking jurisdiction over the vessel and its crew. The crew members were subsequently prosecuted in the Sherman Division of the Eastern District and all defendants were convicted.
The Eastern District has aggressively utilized both prosecutorial tools – importation statutes and maritime jurisdiction – doing so with great success. For Fiscal Year 2020, in regard to organizational drug cases, otherwise known as OCDETF, the Eastern District was number one in the country for the number of defendants prosecuted, beating out much larger (and more famous) districts like SDNY, the Southern District of Florida, and the Central District of California. So, when you think drug prosecution, instead of thinking New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, I urge to think Plano, Sherman, and Tyler.
EDTX also led the nation in the number of defendants in opioid and fentanyl prosecutions, as well the number of these organizational defendants involved in financial crimes. And the Eastern District was number two in the country for the number of indictments against leadership-level defendants in these organizational cases. And these numbers are driven to a large extent by our office’s relentless pursuit of overseas traffickers, made possible through our valuable 959 partnerships.
In discussing these cases, and 959 practice generally, one question inevitably comes up: Why the Eastern District of Texas? Why does the Eastern District of Texas prosecute so many of the world’s largest drug traffickers?” I think the subtext there is “why does such a small district, particularly one without the major population centers seen in other districts, account for such a large share of international defendants?” The answer is two-fold.
In the late 1970’s the Eastern District of Texas undertook the investigation and prosecution of one of the richest and most powerful men in Texas, Rex Cauble. Cauble was larger-than-life. He owned a chain of western wear stores, a fleet of shrimp boats, ranches, and even a bank. He was worth $100 million or more. He was known, too, as an anti-drug crusader who recorded his own anti-drug commercials.
All the while, however, he was using his fleet of shrimp boats and his private jets to transport over $70 million worth of marijuana from Colombia directly into Texas. The Eastern District prosecuted him and his entire organization, making national headlines. This case and other cases led to the establishment of long and lasting relationships with agents and officials in Colombia and throughout Central and South America. These relationships, in turn, led to joint efforts over the decades to prosecute the highest-level drug traffickers in the courts of the Eastern District.
Which leads me to my second point. In East Texas, we have great judges who are both fair-minded and serious about enforcing the law. I honestly cannot sing their praises high enough. They are thorough, prepared, and well-versed in the law. Furthermore, we have fair but tough juries who are no-nonsense when they evaluate these cases.
Moreover, years of positive experiences and great case results have shown our federal law enforcement partners, as well as our allies in Colombia and other countries, that EDTX can be counted upon to be aggressive and engaged, and to share the same passion for stomping out the drug trade that they do.
Let me now speak a little bit about the mechanics of how we get defendants here. The short answer is through the herculean efforts of the United States Marshals Service. The work that U.S. Marshal John Garrison and his team do to get extradited defendants to the United States is nothing short of extraordinary.
The longer answer, however, is that extradition is a matter of sovereign discretion. Both treaties and actual practices can differ widely among countries. The required paperwork to extradite defendants from another country may vary from 40 or 50 pages—to literally volumes, or even boxes, of papers. Similarly, extradition proceedings in the foreign country can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on the provisions of the respective treaty.
Most countries afford a hearing in a judicial setting, but again, the specifics of the hearing will vary from country to country. Additionally, most countries afford a defendant at least one level of judicial review, as well as a final decision by one or more executive authorities. Obviously, these proceedings will extend the length of the extradition process.
The bulk of our cases come from Colombia and Guatemala. This reflects the reality that Colombia is a major source country for cocaine and heroin, and that Guatemala is the critical waypoint, for reasons of geography, that nearly all loads of narcotics have to pass through on the way to the United States. Mexico is, of course, also a major transit point but it is much more difficult to accomplish extraditions from Mexico, often taking several years, sometimes even up to a decade.
Since 2017, the Eastern District has extradited a total of 92 individuals from Colombia, 11 from Guatemala, and ten from Mexico. There are many more suspects pending arrest in those countries, and even more than that, if one were to include requests to extradite that are currently pending before the State Department. I know these numbers might not mean much when cited in the abstract, but, let me just say, that’s a lot. In fact, one—just one—of our AUSAs in the Plano office is responsible for 70 percent of all of Guatemala’s extraditions. By all accounts, the demand for extradition is only increasing, and EDTX, as part of its commitment to its 959 practice and partnerships, is scaling up in staffing and resources to meet the need.
So, once we have properly investigated the case and our grand jury has handed up an indictment there are four key steps to the process of getting the defendant to the United States. First, we work with our foreign partners to locate the fugitive. This can often be one of the more difficult steps. Second, we submit a formal request asking the foreign jurisdiction to issue a warrant based on our indictment–this is called a Provisional Arrest Warrant (or PAW) because it is conditioned on our promise to follow up with a formal extradition request once the fugitive is arrested.
Third, the foreign authorities obtain the requested warrant and arrest our defendant. The defendant then waits in jail while we have a short deadline to have our State Department make a formal extradition request to the foreign ministry of the other nation. Finally, if the formal extradition request is approved, the defendant is transported to the United States, courtesy of the United States Marshals Service. This process can take as little as 30 days and, again, as much as a decade. In our experience, it usually takes around nine months for a extradition from Colombia and several years for one from Mexico.
Having explained the background of how we get our international cases, I would now, if you will indulge me, love to tell you about some of the exciting successes that we have had in the last year or two.
I don’t know if we have any Netflix fans here, but if we do, you may have heard of a series called “Somos.” It is a difficult-to-watch series that chronicles the events that led up to a massacre in a small village in Mexico called Allende by the Los Zetas cartel. The Zetas were notorious for their brutality, even by cartel standards. The Zetas ruthlessly carried out beheadings, hangings, torture, kidnappings, and even boiling or burning people alive, in order to intimidate and demoralize enemies and innocent civilians.
In September of this year, after seven years of extradition efforts, one of the men most responsible for these murders was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Eastern District of Texas. Numerous witnesses described how Hugo Cesar Roman-Chavarria, also known as “El Vecino,” participated in the massacre by traveling around Allende with Zetas gunmen, pointing out the homes of relatives and associates of a person they suspected was providing information to law enforcement, marking these people and their families for death.
Zetas gunmen went door-to-door throughout the village, killing men, women, and children, decimating the town. After the Zetas finished their mass murder, they loaded the bodies into a barn and incinerated the building. A definitive conclusion has never been reached as to the number of men, women, and children who lost their lives, but the total is believed to be at least 100, and possibly up to 300.
Over the course of a three-day sentencing hearing in August and September of this year the district court heard from 13 witnesses for the government, including other high-ranking Zetas members, who, like Chavarria, had been extradited to the United States to face charges. These witnesses described not only Chavarria’s willing involvement in this massacre, but also described his role as a major player in the drug importation trade, overseeing the shipment of enormous quantities of cocaine between Piedras Negras, Mexico, and Eagle Pass, Texas on behalf of the Los Zetas cartel. In the end, Chavarria received a well-deserved life sentence, and hopefully some justice and peace was delivered to the families and friends of those who were killed in Allende.
Similarly, just last month, one of the largest and most violent drug traffickers in Guatemala, Wilson Luargas-Garcia, was also sentenced to a term of life imprisonment. Luargas-Garcia was a prolific drug trafficker, responsible for the trafficking of large amounts of cocaine to drug cartels and guerrilla fighters in Central and South America. He coordinated shipments with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (also known as the FARC), one of Colombia’s largest and most violent rebel groups.
Luargas-Garcia, who had a reputation for employing violence against his rivals, used illicit proceeds from his drug sales to acquire weapons and to train his personal paramilitary security guards. In April 2018, Luargas-Garcia was extradited to the Eastern District of Texas to face drug charges. Despite being in custody, he continued to run his drug trafficking organization from various local jails, using fellow inmates to smuggle cell phones and other contraband into the jail facilities. Federal investigators teamed with the Smith County Sheriff’s Office and the Guatemalan Ministerio Público to uncover these activities and dismantle his drug operation. In retaliation, Luargas-Garcia threatened to kill one of our Eastern District federal prosecutors. Like Chavarria, Luargas Garcia also received a well-deserved life sentence.
One more colorful defendant was Jhon Eduis Viafara Mina, also known as “Futbolista,” “Goleador,” and “Makelele.” Viafara was involved in the logistical preparations of dispatching large cocaine shipments by aircraft or boat from Colombia to Mexico via Central America, with an eventual destination of the United States.
Based on this conduct, Viafara was indicted, extradited, and eventually sentenced to 11 years for his involvement in narcotics trafficking. One fun fact is that Viafara Mina was once a star soccer player in Europe, playing for teams in Great Britain and Spain and, notably, the Colombia National Team. Despite all of this, the lure of even greater riches brought him into narcotics trafficking. In the end, it only brought him a lengthy prison sentence.
In closing, I wish to make one obvious, but crucial point. We could not bring these cases without the tremendous partnerships that we enjoy with our federal, state, local, and international partners. For those agents and officers in attendance, let me say that EDTX is tremendously grateful for your hard work, your dedication, and your commitment to the rule of law.
You make a real difference in the lives of Americans, as well in the lives of those who live in countries where the fight against drug cartels is a matter of literal life and death. EDTX will continue to be your partner and your ally as we continue this noble pursuit. Let us, together, bring this fight to the cartels’ front door.
Thank you again for the invitation to come and address you today. I truly appreciate the contribution that the North Texas Crime Commission makes to keeping public safety at the forefront of the public conversation. Thank you for what you do.”
The North Texas Crime Commission (formerly the Greater Dallas Crime Commission) was established in 1950. Its belief is that proper enforcement and enlightened prevention can be achieved through a comprehensive and cooperative effort involving concerned citizens and law enforcement. In addition to monthly membership breakfasts, the NTCC travels to Austin monthly during the Legislative Session to meet with key lawmakers and annually to Washington, D.C. to meet with law enforcement officials and lawmakers.