Sandra Avila Beltrán, the reputed “Queen of the Pacific” in the Colombian-Mexican drug trade, must stay behind bars in a downtown Miami detention center while she awaits trial on cocaine-trafficking charges in federal court.
“I haven’t heard any argument that she would stay put if released on bond,” Magistrate Judge Patrick White ruled at her bail hearing Tuesday.
The once-fashionable Avila was dressed in a drab khaki prison suit and orange rubber clogs, with shackles on her wrists and ankles. The 51-year-old, whose famous raven hair flowed beyond her shoulders, was extradited from Mexico last week after fighting her turnover to U.S. authorities following her arrest in 2007.
Her arraignment on charges of conspiring to smuggle and distribute loads of cocaine was continued until Sept. 14. Prosecutor Cynthia Wood argued that the evidence against her was “strong,” but Avila’s attorney Stephen Ralls called it “weak.”
Avila’s reputation as the Queen of the Pacific was gained by her dominant role in the powerful Sinaloa cartel, her romantic relationship with a Colombian drug kingpin and her influence over ocean supply routes.
This summer, a Mexican court granted her extradition to face the U.S. narco-trafficking indictment, which has alleged links to a cocaine deal in Chicago and a cocaine seizure in Manzanillo.
In September 2001, federal agents intercepted a telephone call in which Avila allegedly sought payment for 100 kilos of cocaine delivered in Chicago.
It’s unclear who allegedly spoke to Avila in the potentially critical wiretapped call that the prosecutor says put her in the trafficking conspiracy. The caller, described by the prosecutor as someone who became a “cooperator” for the government, was based in Miami.
Court records in a related prosecution of her former boyfriend, Colombian drug lord Juan Diego Espinosa, indicate that the person who spoke with Avila was the “purchaser” of the cocaine shipped to Chicago.
Espinosa, who pleaded guilty in 2009 to a conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, said in a “factual” statement that he and Avila “took part” in the Chicago cocaine deal, court records show.
Between September and December 2001, Espinosa “made attempts to collect payment for the 100 kilos of cocaine from [the] purchaser in Miami,” according to the statement filed with his plea agreement. “Unbeknownst to [Espinosa], the purchaser was arrested by [the Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami] in early December 2001 and became a cooperating source.”
Both Espinosa and Avila were also implicated in a Colombian shipment of 9 tons of cocaine intended for Mexico and the United States, according to his factual statement. Authorities seized the shipment after it was transferred from a Colombian vessel to a Mexican tuna boat off the Pacific port of Manzanillo.
Espinosa said in his statement that he “was going to participate in the storing and distribution of the cocaine once it arrived in Mexico. However, the load of cocaine was seized because DEA agents in Miami had learned about the upcoming shipment from the cooperating source.”
The cooperating source, who had helped set up the shipment, “was going to use his earnings from this cocaine shipment to pay his debt from the 100 kilos he had received in Chicago earlier in 2001,” according to Espinosa’s statement.
At Tuesday’s bond hearing, Avila’s attorney, Ralls, challenged a government witness about the integrity of the indictment against her, especially the alleged link between the Chicago deal and Manzanillo seizure.
“Both of those [incidents] go together in our investigation,” DEA Special Agent Stephen Kepper testified.
In Avila’s case, at least one convicted defendant has been cooperating with authorities. His name: Leyner Valencia Espinosa, the brother of her one-time Colombian boyfriend.
The 2004 federal indictment charged Espinosa, Avila and five others with the drug-trafficking conspiracies. Espinosa, who initially received a 22-year prison sentence, saw it cut by half for his cooperation. The other defendants, including Espinosa family members, also pleaded guilty. Avila, now in custody, and Julio Beltrán, a fugitive but no relation, remain as defendants in the case.
In the ruling on Avila’s bail, the magistrate judge said he did not believe she was a “danger to the community,” as the prosecutor argued, because she has been incarcerated for years. But White found she was a “risk of flight” because she has no ties to the South Florida community and faces a long prison sentence if convicted.
Mexicans, along with the press, have long been fascinated with Avila, following details of her taste for high fashion, gourmet food and beauty secrets. One rumor that made the rounds: A doctor visited her while she was jailed in Mexico to administer her Botox injections.
Much of the fascination with Avila is because of her sex. For decades, narco-trafficking has been dominated by macho men, but experts say women have always played a key role in Mexican drug organizations.