Cartel trial could hit Md.

Drug ring suspect awaits extradition on murder charge

1991 victim from Bel Air

Colombian man's job played a role in his New Jersey arrest

January 29, 2000|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

A man suspected of being a high-level figure in one of the world's largest drug cartels faces extradition to Maryland on charges that he ordered the 1991 assassination of a South Baltimore businessman, who U.S. agents say was killed in a giant drug-smuggling scheme.

Ernesto Forero-Orjuela, 46, who federal prosecutors believe is a member of the Cali cartel and who had been a fugitive for more than six years, was arrested Thursday night in New Jersey, where he had been working for financial services giant Merrill Lynch. Federal sources said they suspect Forero-Orjuela got a job there to help the cartel launder money.

Forero-Orjuela was hoping to work on the New York Stock Exchange and had been fingerprinted as part of his employment application at Merrill Lynch, which routinely does background checks on employees, according to the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force. The fingerprint check revealed that he was wanted on a federal murder warrant.

Forero-Orjuela is believed to be well-connected to the business arm of the Cali cartel, a conglomeration of the largest cocaine trafficking organizations in the world, federal prosecutors said. In the late 1980s he began using a South Baltimore shipping company to smuggle drugs into the United States, court papers said.

That business was run by shipping and storage entrepreneur John R. Shotto, whom the cartel had entrusted with millions of dollars to be used for refurbishing a ship called the Liberty, court papers said. The Liberty was to be one of the cartel's main cocaine-smuggling vessels, the court papers also said.

At some point, Shotto apparently fell out of favor with the cartel. An indictment unsealed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore charges that Forero-Orjuela and the Cali cartel's third in command, Jose "El Chepe" Santacruz-Londono, conspired to have Shotto killed on Sept. 4, 1991. They paid two Colombian hit men $50,000 to carry out the killing, the indictment said.

Santacruz-Londono was also named in the Baltimore indictment, filed in 1994. But he was killed two years later in a gunfight with Colombian police.

Shotto, 52, of Bel Air, was gunned down in a parking lot at the Maritime Center in the 2200 block of Broening Highway. Also killed in the ambush attack was an innocent bystander who had been walking with Shotto, Raymond Nicholson Jr., 38. Nicholson, who lived in Prince George's County, was a vice president of the Hechinger Co. hardware chain.

Nicholson's widow, Paula Nicholson, called the arrest "incredible" last night.

"I didn't think they'd ever catch any of those guys," she said. "I hope that they make him pay for it. I cannot understand how someone can take another person's life and then not be punished for it."

Documents filed in connection with a federal indictment in Baltimore state that between 1987 and 1989, the Cali cartel transferred more than $3 million in drug proceeds from Panamanian bank accounts that was to be used for "the purchase, refitting and operation" of the Liberty drug ship.

It is unclear how much Shotto knew of the cartel and its intentions for the ship, which in the late 1980s had made several trips to ports in Cristobal, Panama and Cartegena, Colombia.

In February 1991, at a secret meeting in Miami of cartel officials, it was expressed that "the people behind Forero-Orjuela were displeased with the Liberty ship matter and would not consider further ventures in Maryland until it was resolved," court papers said.

Forero-Orjuela hired two Colombian-born assassins, John Mena, 23, and Leo Velasco, 26, to stake out Shotto, follow his habits, and kill him, according to the federal indictment.

Mena traveled from New York on two occasions before the killing and brought a camera to covertly photograph Shotto, court papers said.

On the night of the killings, Mena drove the car and Velasco fired the fatal bullet from the passenger seat that killed Shotto, according to guilty plea agreements of the two men, who were prosecuted in New York. Mena testified that after killing Shotto, Velasco decided he had better kill Nicholson as well, declaring, "The other one might as well go."

Velasco received credit for his cooperation in the New York investigation and got a 15-year sentence. Mena, who also received credit for helping authorities, was sentenced to 18 years. After testifying against the cartel, Mena's father and several other family members were killed in Colombia, presumably by cartel hit men.

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