Source: Guardian
Date: 7 December 2006

Smuggling in suburbia: how two men ran cartel flooding UK with 1bn of cocaine

Rosie Cowan, crime correspondent

To their neighbours in the north London suburb of Hendon, Jesus Anibal Ruiz-Henao and his brother-in-law, Mario Tascon, were quiet, respectable men. They worked hard as cleaners, bus drivers and other manual jobs, while Ruiz-Henao's wife ran a hair and beauty salon.

Both men were asylum seekers and Ruiz-Henao had been given indefinite leave to stay in the UK after arriving from Colombia 20 years ago. The family's only brush with the limelight came in the early 1990s when Ruiz-Henao won 100,000 in a spot-the-ball competition.

Apart from splashing out on the occasional household luxury - a fridge freezer, a bigger television - he wasn't a big spender. He preferred, it seemed, to give his money to charity, setting up a fund to raise money for an orphanage near his home town of Pereira in Colombia, for children who had lost their parents to drug addiction or drug-related violence.

But Ruiz-Henao had other much less charitable interests at heart. The whole reason behind his move to the UK was to set up a multimillion pound drug smuggling and money laundering business, with Tascon as his trusty lieutenant. Ruiz-Henao, 45, and Tascon, 32, are serving 19 and 17 years respectively, it was revealed yesterday. They were also ordered to be deported on their release after admitting running the cartel. Detectives reckon it employed 50-100 people in the UK, bringing in 1.5 tonnes of cocaine - worth 100m on the streets - each year over a decade and distributing it around the country. Profits are hard to assess but some estimates put them at 350m in 13 years.

They were among dozens arrested in the UK in autumn 2003 as part of a four-year investigation by National Crime Squad and Scotland Yard officers,working with unprecedented cooperation from the Colombian authorities.

Such was the significance of the network that the price of cocaine rose 50% from 20,000 to 30,000 a kilo within weeks of Ruiz-Henao's arrest.

Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian president, was briefed about the operation by the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, when he visited London last year.

The case resulted in jail sentences totalling 350 years for main players in Britain and Colombia, the seizure of two tonnes of drugs - a quarter of which was cocaine, three-quarters cannabis - and the confiscation of more than 5m cash assets. In the UK 32 others have admitted or been found guilty, while in Colombia the figure is 17. Reporting restrictions covering the trials were lifted when the last of the UK defendants pleaded guilty at Southwark crown court in south London yesterday.

"This was a global business enterprise and we followed the money to successfully rip the heart of the entire organisation from the sellers in Colombia to the dealers on the streets of London," said detective superintendent Sharon Kerr, who led the Scotland Yard inquiry into the money-laundering end of the network.

"The vast majority of defendants pleaded guilty due to the overwhelming evidence," said detective superintendent Martin Molloy, of the National Crime Squad, which led the drug investigation.

Ruiz-Henao and Tascon brought Colombian drugs via Spain to London and sent millions of pounds a year back to Colombia. In court they admitted making 40m. Detectives believe this was the tip of the iceberg.

Cocaine was shipped from Colombia to near the coast of Spain, where it was brought ashore in small boats. The drugs were repackaged to be sent to London by lorry, car and courier. The smugglers used many ingenious methods, inserting the drugs in mustard or jam or fruit to throw sniffer dogs off the scent. Sometimes the cocaine was dissolved into liquid form and impregnated in clothing or plastic.

Once in the UK, it was taken to safe houses, mostly in north London, where it was reconstituted and packaged for distribution throughout the country. Many of those in the UK end of the operation were relatives, or close family friends from back in Colombia. The drugs were sold on to British crime groups, who sold it on the streets. Getting the profits back to Colombia was also meticulously organised. Sometimes the smugglers simply filled holdalls with cash and popped them back on the lorries that had brought the drugs. Alternatively couriers would swallow condoms full of rolled-up 100 notes.

But the most sophisticated ruse was electronic money transfer. Money would be split into maximum bundles of 500 - the biggest amount that could be sent to Colombia without lots of paperwork - which were wired in hundreds of transactions. In one year, 20m was transferred.

In Colombia, the drug bosses employed as many as 20,000 people to collect these transfers. Although the Colombian side of the operation was beset by violence - Ruiz-Henao's brother was murdered - the criminals in the UK led ordinary lives, said Det Supt Kerr. "The myths about the drug trade being full of guns and cloaked in mystery didn't apply," she said. "These were middle-aged men and women who were cleaners and the like, who were invisible in society."

The Scotland Yard assistant commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, who heads specialist crime, said lots of lessons had been learned in snaring such key criminals but admitted others would step up to take their places. "We've taken these people out, who will fill the gap?" he said.

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