Sandra Avila Beltrán, once known as the “Queen of the Pacific” in the Latin American drug trade, is accusing Miami prosecutors of lying about her role in cocaine shipments to the United States to persuade Mexican authorities to extradite her last year.
For Avila, a dark-haired beauty who stood out in a narco-trafficking world dominated by macho men, the misconduct accusation is a final bid to save her neck as she faces trial — or a possible plea deal — later this month.
Her defense lawyers are seeking to have a 2004 indictment dismissed, but it’s a likely long shot. If convicted of two conspiracy charges alleging drug importation and distribution, the 52-year-old Avila could spend the rest of her life in prison.
Her attorneys claim in a court filing that a federal prosecutor and drug agent were aware that signed declarations by codefendants — including Avila’s ex-boyfriend — were “riddled with falsehoods and misstatements.” Yet Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Morales submitted the evidence to Mexican authorities in 2010 to persuade them to extradite Avila, according to the defense lawyers, Stephen Ralls and Howard Schumacher.
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Morales’ successor in the case, prosecutor Cynthia Wood, said in court papers that the allegations against him were “false” and “without foundation.”
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 trafficker and her influence over ocean supply routes.
In Public eye
Mexicans, along with the news media, have long been fascinated with Avila, who was arrested in her country in 2007. They constantly followed 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.
Last summer, a Mexican court and foreign secretary granted her extradition on the U.S. narco-trafficking indictment, which has alleged links to a cocaine deal in Chicago and a cocaine seizure in Manzanillo more than a decade ago.
Avila’s attorneys claim that Morales, the prosecutor, pressured her ex-boyfriend, Juan Diego Espinosa Ramirez, who was convicted in the same case, to sign a March 2010 declaration implicating her in the Chicago deal — without his defense attorney present. They said his declaration was instrumental in her extradition to the United States.
But according to Espinosa, “his declaration was not freely and voluntarily provided and he was denied the advice of counsel prior to signing the document,” Avila’s attorneys said in court papers.
Espinosa said in the declaration that Avila participated in a 100-kilo cocaine shipment with a trafficker named Juan Carlos Lopez Correa in 2001. And that after the cocaine was delivered to Chicago, Lopez Correa became responsible for the debt on the drug deal, he said.
On Sept. 14, 2001, federal agents intercepted a telephone call in which Espinosa, Avila and Lopez Correa allegedly discussed his outstanding payment. During the call, Espinosa asked Lopez Correa to pay for the shipment.
The current prosecutor in the case, Wood, pointed out that Espinosa’s declaration was similar to the factual statement he and his defense attorney signed in June 2009, when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine.
Espinosa, who initially received a 22-year prison sentence, saw it cut by half for his cooperation. In his plea statement, Espinosa said 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 plea statement. “Unbeknownst to [Espinosa], the purchaser was arrested by [the Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami] in early December 2001 and became a cooperating source.”
It is unclear from the court record who the cooperating source was.
Both Espinosa and Avila were also implicated in a Colombian shipment of nine tons of cocaine intended for Mexico and the United States in December 2001, according to Espinosa’s plea 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 Avila’s bond hearing in August, her attorney, Ralls, challenged the DEA agent investigating the case, questioning the integrity of the indictment against his client — 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.