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Last Updated: Friday, 6 January 2006, 12:19 GMT
Bringing down the Colombian connection
By Paula Dear and Chris Summers
BBC News Website

A Colombian gang which ran one of the biggest cocaine distribution networks in Britain has been jailed. The two masterminds, Jesus Anibal Ruiz Henao and Mario Tascon, were sentenced to 19 and 17 years.

The convictions, which can only be revealed now after reporting restrictions were finally lifted, are the culmination of a four-year investigation by the National Crime Squad and Scotland Yard, who were assisted by Colombian police.

Arrests in Sep 03
Police swooped on the suspects in the autumn of 2003
Those who encountered Jesus Ruiz Henao and his brother-in-law Mario Tascon in their everyday London jobs - driving buses and cleaning - could never have guessed they were sitting on millions in drug money.

They admitted importing 150 kilos of cocaine and sending 19m back to Colombia, but detectives said they believed it was only the tip of the iceberg.

Click here to see a map of the drugs and money route

The pair were at the centre of a huge and complex investigation, which has led to dozens of people being convicted and sentenced in Britain to between six and 18 years, plus another 15 people convicted in Colombia.

Two parallel operations were set up to bring down the gang.

The Colombian connection
Drugs emanated from Pereira region of Colombia
An estimated 350m profit was made over 13 years
Around 350kg of cocaine was seized by National Crime Squad and Metropolitan Police

The National Crime Squad's Operation Habitat team targeted the drug smuggling aspect while Operation Anuric, the brainchild of the Metropolitan Police, looked at the money laundering network.

Operation Habitat resulted in half a tonne of cocaine and 3.5m cash being seized.

Police said the cash was more significant than the drugs haul because it represented the "profits" due to be sent to Colombia, whereas cocaine itself could be relatively easily replaced.

Detectives claimed the raids had such an impact that the wholesale cocaine price increased 50% after the gang was removed from the equation.

Around 7m of the pair's own profits were traceable in Britain and in Colombia but detectives estimate the gang made around 350m over a period of 13 years.

Ruiz, 45, and Tascon, 32, were part of a group of Colombians who came to the UK seeking political asylum in around 1990.

Few trappings of wealth

While some stayed beyond the time allowed, the pair were given indefinite leave to remain, and they had families while living in the UK.

Although living an outwardly normal life in north London - with few trappings of wealth - officers said they were in the country specifically to represent Colombian drugs cartels and distribute illegal substances around the UK.

The National Crime Squad discovered the gang was bringing cocaine from Colombia to Britain, via Spain.

The drugs were distributed around the UK, and the money sent back to Colombia, sometimes via Spain and sometimes directly.

Ruiz, say detectives, was effectively the UK sales distribution manager for criminal cartels based in Colombia's Pereira region, which is renowned for cocaine production.

T he set-up was gradually uncovered through the use of undisclosed "intrusive surveillance techniques" over a two-year period.

Smeared with jam

About a tonne of cocaine a year arrived on UK soil as a result of the gang's activities, usually on vehicles such as lorries or vans.

The drugs were hidden in a variety of ways including being packed, sealed and smeared with mustard or jam to confuse sniffer dogs, being impregnated in plastic, or brought in liquid form.

The gang mostly used UK transport networks to get the drugs around the country, selling them in all major cities.

The money was sent back to Colombia, hidden in the same lorries the drugs had arrived in, by money transfers in relatively small amounts or via couriers who swallowed 100 euro notes wrapped in condoms.

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Distribution route

Map showing route of drugs and money

See undercover video surveillance of the operation

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