A top leader of Colombia's biggest drug cartel was captured in a luxurious home and alleged to have used legitimate business interests in Brazil to launder money from cocaine shipped to the US and Europe.
Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, who faces three US federal indictments on drug and racketeering charges, was arrested at dawn on Tuesday at a house in a gated community on the outskirts of Sao Paulo complete with a gym, sauna, plasma TVs and a huge swimming pool.
Police said Ramirez Abadia arrived at least two years ago from Colombia to allegedly oversee his gang's investments in Brazil -- including cattle ranches, industrial property, mansions and hotels -- and twice underwent plastic surgery to alter his appearance.
His Norte del Valle cartel emerged as Colombia's most powerful drug gang after the mid-1990s, and the US State Department in September 2004 began offering up to US$5 million for information leading to the arrest of its leaders.
Ramirez Abadia came to Brazil to orchestrate a cartel scheme to launder drug money from as far away as Mexico and Spain, said Fernando Francischini, the federal police agent in charge of the investigation.
"His deal was to stay away from the drugs, so he could be with the money that arrived in Brazil," Francischini said.
US officials said they are seeking the extradition of Ramirez Abadia -- nicknamed "Chupeta," or lollipop in Colombian Spanish -- who is accused of shipping tonnes of cocaine and ordering the murders of police and informants in the US and Colombia.
Brazilian judicial officials are analyzing whether Ramirez Abadia should be extradited or face charges in Brazil, Francischini said.
Police said they knew of Ramirez Abadia's presence in Brazil for two years, and received a tip a week ago that led to his arrest.
US officials are deciding who might be eligible for the cash reward for information leading to his capture, said Richard Mei, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Brazil.
The wealth of Ramirez Abadia, 44, once reached US$1.8 billion, but he is believed to be indebted to other traffickers, the US State Department said.
Francischini said police also arrested Ramirez Abadia's wife, another Colombian citizen and 10 Brazilians, and seized about US$920,000 in various currencies from his house. Some of the money was found in stereo speakers, Brazil's Globo TV reported.
In all police served 22 search warrants in six states and confiscated drugs, guns, bulletproof cars, jet skis and yachts, including one said to be worth US$1 million.
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