Another extradition lands third ELN member on U.S. soil for international cocaine distribution
$5 million reward still active for alleged leader
HOUSTON – Another alleged associate of one of the most serious transnational criminal organizations has arrived from Colombia and is set to make his initial appearance in Houston federal court.
Jose Gabriel Alvarez Ortiz, 26, landed in Houston just moments ago. He is set to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Bray at 2 p.m. tomorrow.
Ortiz is charged with distributing cocaine with other alleged members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional aka ELN), two of whom - Yamit Picon-Rodriguez aka Choncha, 36, and Henry Trigos-Celon aka Moncho Picada, 44, were extradited last month. They are facing narco-terrorism and drug trafficking charges.
ELN is a Colombian guerrilla group officially designated as a foreign terrorist organization Oct. 8, 1997. It continues to operate as one of the largest narco-terrorism organizations in the world.
A federal grand jury returned an indictment against Ortiz, Picon-Rodriguez and Trigos-Celon and others on Feb. 12, 2020. Colombian authorities took them into custody at the request of the United States in September 2020.
Ortiz is charged with international cocaine distribution. In early 2019, Ortiz and four others allegedly participated in distributing approximately 30 kilograms of cocaine in Colombia, knowing it would be imported into the United States.
Ortiz’s co-defendants are also charged with distribution of a controlled substance and knowing or intending to provide anything of pecuniary value to a person or organization that engages in terrorism or terrorist activity (narco-terrorism).
According to the indictment, Picon-Rodriguez, Trigos-Celon and others were involved in an ongoing 20-year conspiracy to distribute cocaine from Colombia to the United States knowing or intending to provide pecuniary support to the ELN.
Suspected ELN leader Villegas-Palomino aka Carlos El Puerco, 38, is also charged but not yet in custody. He is considered a fugitive as are Jaime Miguel Picon-Rodriguez aka Chencho and Jairo, 38, and Diomedes Barbosa-Montaño aka El Burro, 38. A warrant remains outstanding for their arrests. Anyone with information about their whereabouts is asked to contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or submit tips online at tips.fbi.gov. The U.S. Department of State, through its narcotics rewards program, is offering up to a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of Villegas-Palomino.
The Houston Divisions of the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) conducted the investigation as part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF). FBI and DEA agents in Bogota provided substantial support as did the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) multi-agency Special Operations Division, including assigned attorneys from the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section and National Security Division, as well as DOJ Judicial Attaches in Colombia with the cooperation of Colombian authorities. DOJ – Office of International Affairs, Houston Police Department, U.S. Southern Command and international partners including the Colombian Army, National Police, National Prosecutor's Office and Technical Body of Investigation also provided critical assistance.
The operation, dubbed Operation Catatumbo Lightning, is part of an OCDETF Strike Forces initiative which provides for the establishment of permanent multi-agency task force teams that work side-by-side in the same location. This co-located model enables agents from different agencies to collaborate on intelligence-driven, multi-jurisdictional operations to disrupt and dismantle the most significant drug traffickers, money launderers, gangs and transnational criminal organizations. The specific mission of the Houston Strike Force is to disrupt, dismantle and prosecute the drug trafficking organizations that are designated Consolidated Priority Organization or Regional Priority Organization Target heads with their affiliates that impact Houston and south Texas.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Casey N. MacDonald and Anibal Alaniz of the Southern District of Texas are prosecuting the case.
An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.