Three Colombia nationals, suspected of being part of the Medellin drug cartel, were arrested in a sting operation last night in the heart of Fells Point by federal agents and city police.
The men were arrested after arriving from New York with more than $105,000 as payment to an undercover agent for "delivering" more than $700,000 worth of purported "high-grade cocaine," a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman said today.
In fact, said Agent Douglas Biales of the DEA office in Baltimore, the "cocaine" used in the transaction was bogus.
The three suspects all were charged with conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute it, and were held overnight in the Central District police lockup pending initial appearances before a federal magistrate in U.S. District Court.
The suspects were identified as Horacio Zapata-Viveros, 25, and David Lucuni, 26, both of Cali, and Alanzo Gomez-Montoya, 27, of Medellin.
Biales said the arrests grew out of a short-term undercover investigation into the delivery of 20 kilograms of cocaine from Colombia to Baltimore by way of New York. The three men are believed to be members of the Medellin drug cartel, he said.
Biales said undercover drug agents made contact with the suspects recently and spoke to them several times on the telephone to arrange the delivery of 20 kilograms of cocaine for a fee of $6,000 per kilogram, or $120,000. He declined to say whether the real cocaine was intercepted.
John S. Taylor, special agent in charge of the local DEA office, said the arrests were "an example of DEA's commitment to target drug offenders and to prevent the flow of drugs into the country."
Biales said the three Colombians, two of whom had been living in Queens, N.Y., and the third in Stamford, Conn., met an undercover agent on southbound Interstate 95 in a 1989 Ford van and a late-model Oldsmobile. The agent escorted them to Fells Point about 9 p.m.
While two of the men men waited in the van, the third accompanied the agent to Broadway and Thames Street, in the heart of Fells Point.
During the "delivery," the undercover agent went to the suspect's car and was shown a briefcase containing bundles of cash amounting to $105,000, his fee for allegedly delivering the 20 kilograms of cocaine. The agent signaled the other agents and police that he had the money.
At that point, the two men went to the undercover agent's vehicle, where the agent showed the suspect fake cocaine in a briefcase. Then the agent again signaled other agents and police, who moved in to make the arrests.
None of the suspects was armed, and the arrests occurred without incident.
Biales said, however, that at least 20 DEA agents, some armed with submachine guns, and several Southeastern District police officers kept the agent and the three men under constant surveillance as scores of pedestrians enjoyed the mild evening, unaware of the real-life drama that was unfolding nearby.
On the perimeter of the surveillance, Biales said, were city police K-9 units and a police helicopter. The dogs and the helicopter were on stand-by in case any of the three escaped the net and fled into the densely populated neighborhood.
"Besides arresting the three suspects," Biales said, "our other concern was the safety of innocent persons in the immediate area."
He said drug couriers prefer doing business in places frequented by the public because it provides escape routes.
"Believe me," said Biales, "they never had a chance to find an escape route."
Biales said had it been necessary to show the three suspects the cocaine they were paying the undercover man for delivering, there was a large quantity of fake cocaine available for display.