Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
Press Conference November 6, 2002
Over the past 24 hours, in separate law enforcement actions in two U.S. cities, the war on terrorism has been joined with the war on illegal drug use. In Houston, four men have been charged in a 25 million dollar drugs-for-weapons scheme. In San Diego, three individuals have been indicted for conspiring to trade heroin and hashish for anti-aircraft missiles which they said they intended to sell to al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan.Today, because U.S. law enforcement officers have put their lives and personal safety on the line, narco-terrorists 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 to deliver some 25 million dollars worth of weaponry to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish language acronym, AUC. In the custody of Costa Rican and U.S. authorities this afternoon are:
- Carlos Ali Romero Varela, an associate of the AUC leadership and a Houston resident;
- Uwe Jensen, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Houston; and
- Cesar Lopez and Commandant Emilio, 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. Romero and Jensen sought to broker the drugs-for-weapons exchange with AUC operatives Lopez and Emilio. If convicted on all charges, each defendant faces up to life in prison.
Operation "White Terror" 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 Castaņo-Gil, was charged with five counts of drug trafficking in September . is an 8000-man Columbian 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, and 75 massacres with 507 victims during the first 10 months of 2000. Carlos Castaņo-Gil has boasted that 70 percent of his group's financing comes from drug trafficking.
The complaint filed against the defendants details how Romero and Jensen 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
- 300 pistols.
Copies of the complaint, which are being made available, provide a full 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.
Syed Mustajab Shah, Muhammed Abid Afridi and Ilyas Ali are charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin and hashish and conspiracy to provide material support to al Qaeda. The indictment alleges the defendants arranged to exchange 600 kilograms of heroin and five metric tons of hashish for cash and four Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. The indictment charges that the defendants, who are currently in the custody of Hong Kong authorities, said they intended to sell the anti-aircraft missiles to al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. If convicted on all counts, the defendants face up to life in prison.
Both these successful investigations were the result of literally thousands of hours of complex and often 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 risk 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 Qaeda.
I thank Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson for his pivotal role in the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, which oversaw the Houston investigation with the FBI and the DEA. Larry Thompson was one of the original OCDETF prosecutors and has spearheaded the reorganization and revitalization of OCDETF as the centerpiece of our illegal drug supply reduction strategy. I thank you for his leadership in this case and many others.
My thanks and gratitude go to Director Robert Mueller and the many agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who put themselves at personal risk to secure these arrests.
I thank also DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson for his work and the work of his team. Their dedication and courage were central to severing the deadly, mutually re-enforcing connection between drug trafficking and terrorism in these cases.
And I recognize and commend the two dedicated U.S. Attorneys at the center of these cases. U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby in Houston, who is with me here today, distinguished himself in bringing these charges. And U.S. Attorney Carol Lam in San Diego lead the team in San Diego in obtaining the indictment unsealed today. I thank both these individuals for their contribution.
I thank, as well, the following Special Agents in Charge: Rich Garcia and Kevin Whaley in Houston and William Gore and Michael Vigil in San Diego.
Terrorism and drug trafficking thrive in the same conditions, support each other, and feed off each other. This afternoon, the nation is safer and our citizens are more secure because a group of dedicated public servants has broken the link. in two instances at least . between terrorism and drug trafficking. They have earned our admiration, our respect, and our gratitude.
Thank you. Now I will be happy to take your questions.