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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Ashcroft Announces New Arrests

Aired November 6, 2002 - 13:08   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to go now and listen in to a news conference coming in from John Ashcroft.
JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... for anti-aircraft missiles which they said they intended to sell to Al Qaida forces in Afghanistan.

Today, because U.S. law enforcement officers have put their lives and their personal safety on the line, narcoterrorists from South America to Southeast Asia are less able to threaten American lives and American security.

In Houston, we have charged four men in a drugs-for-weapons plot, a plot to deliver some $25 million worth of weaponry to the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym, AUC.

In the custody of Costa Rican and U.S. authorities this afternoon are the following individuals: Carlos Ali Romeros Verella (ph), an associate of the AUC leadership and a Houston resident; Hughey Jenson (ph), a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Houston; and Cezar Lopez (ph) and Commandant Emilio (ph), both high- ranking AUC leaders.

These defendants are charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

Romeros (ph) and Jenson (ph) sought to broker the drugs-for- weapons exchange with AUC operatives Lopez (ph) and Emilio (ph). If convicted on all charges, each defendant faces up to life in prison.

Operation, quote, "White Terror," close quote, was a skillfully executed 13-month joint investigation under the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force by special agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The AUC, whose leader Carlos Castano-Gil was charged with five counts of drug trafficking in September. That organization is an 800,000-man Colombian paramilitary group listed on the State Department's foreign terrorist organization list.

The Colombian police estimate that the AUC is responsible for 804 assassinations, 203 kidnappings, 75 massacres with 507 victims during the first 10 months of the year 2000.

Carlos Castano-Gil has boasted that 70 percent of his group's financing comes from drug trafficking. The complaint filed against the defendant details how Romeros (ph) and Jenson (ph) arranged with an undercover law enforcement officer to purchase five shipping containers full of Russian and Eastern European made weaponry for the AUC.

Among the weaponry the defendants are charged with attempting to acquire are shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and approximately 53 million rounds of various types of ammunition, 9,000 assault rifles, including AK-47s, sub-machine guns and sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and almost 300,000 grenades and an additional 300 pistols.

Copies of the complaint, which are being made available provide a more complete listing of the weaponry negotiated for purchase.

In a simultaneous strike against the terrorism, drug-trafficking nexus, an indictment was unsealed this morning in San Diego charging two Pakistani nationals and one United States citizen with conspiring to provide Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to anti-U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Sayad Mustajub Shah (ph), Mohamed Abed Afridi (ph) and Ilias Ali (ph) are charged with conspiring to distribute heroin and hashish and conspiracy to provide material support to Al Qaida.

The indictment alleges the defendants arranged to exchange 600 kilograms of heroin and 5 metric tons of hashish for cash and four Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

The indictment charges the defendants, who are currently in the custody of Hong Kong authorities, said that they intended to sell the anti-aircraft missiles to Al Qaida forces in Afghanistan.

If convicted on all counts, the defendants face up to -- terms of imprisonment of up to life.

Both of these successful investigations were the result of literally thousands of hours of complex and, I might add, often very dangerous work by law enforcement officials.

In the Houston case, undercover agents met with the defendants to negotiate the drugs-for-weapons deal in London, the Virgin Islands and Panama City, Panama. In the Virgin Islands, agents met with AUC members at an undercover warehouse to inspect some of the weaponry involved in the negotiations.

These meetings were video and audio taped, exacerbating the risks to the agents involved.

Likewise, in the San Diego case, undercover law enforcement officials met with the defendants and recorded their negotiations for weapons and drugs.

Some of these meetings took place in Hong Kong. It was in one such meeting with undercover agents that the defendants stated that they intended to sell Stinger missiles to Al Qaida. I want to thank Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson for his pivotal role in the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. This concept, which oversaw the Houston investigation with the FBI and the DEA, is an important component in our law enforcement arsenal.

And Larry, your reinvigoration of OCDETF is something for which I am grateful and I know America is grateful.

He was one of the originators, one of the original prosecutors that spearheaded this organization when it was created back in the 1980s and has sought to reinvigorate it and revitalize it as the centerpiece of our illegal drug supply reduction strategy.

SAVIDGE: You've been listening to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft as he outlines what apparently are two major busts on the part of federal investigators, one of them involving a narco-weapons ring that was operating apparently in Colombia, designed to use drugs to try to buy a massive amount of weaponry to be used against the Colombian government in drug wars there. The other apparently involving an attempt by certain drug people to use drugs to buy weapons in return, in this case stinger missiles, for those fighting against Operation Enduring Freedom in the war in Afghanistan. And there are a number of people under arrest in both of those cases.

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