International Drug traffickers sentenced in New Orleans for conspiring to import tons of cocaine

Published 2:41 pm Thursday, February 10, 2022

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NEW ORLEANS – Two defendants who admitted to conspiring to import tons of cocaine into the United States were recently sentenced in the Eastern District of Louisiana.  United States District Judge Lance M. Africk sentenced GILBERTO CONTRERAS, age 45, to 108 months in prison for conspiring to import thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the United States.  United States District Judge Greg G. Guidry sentenced CARLOS RIVADENEIRA, age 50, to 121 months in prison for conspiring to import thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the United States.

According to court records, RIVADENEIRA was a “broker” who connected individuals in Ecuador/Colombia who wanted to move ton quantities of cocaine with transporters who could move the drugs from South America to Central America/Mexico, with an ultimate destination of the United States.  CONTRERAS operated a transportation service moving thousands of kilograms of cocaine from off the coast of Ecuador/Colombia to Central America and Mexico, with an ultimate destination of the United States.  CONTRERAS owned/operated several large container vessels on which a specialized welder had constructed hidden compartments.  After RIVADENEIRA brokered the deals, load owners in Ecuador and Colombia, who owned/produced the cocaine being shipped, would pay CONTRERAS a per kilogram price to move the drugs by sea to buyers in Mexico.  The load owners would stockpile thousands of kilograms of cocaine in hidden locations primarily along the coast of Ecuador.  CONTRERAS would send his vessels from Panama, where they were kept, to meet go-fast boats bringing the cocaine from shore out to international waters.  CONTRERAS’s vessels were outfitted with cranes capable of lifting tons of merchandise from the go-fast boats onto the larger vessels, where crew members then secreted the cocaine in hidden compartments.  CONTRERAS admitted to using four different vessels to transport large amounts of cocaine on at least six different occasions.  Each of the six trips involved at least 3,000 and up to 8,500 kilograms of cocaine, which has a street value in the hundreds of millions.  RIVADENEIRA admitted being caught in a recorded undercover meeting discussing the logistics of a recurring 3,000 kilogram shipment of cocaine to buyers in Mexico from producers in Ecuador.

The case arose from a multi-year investigation conducted by Homeland Security Investigations New Orleans, in conjunction with several HSI offices in Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador.  As the investigation developed, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Panama office also became heavily involved, with assistance from DEA’s offices in Ecuador and Colombia.  This truly collaborative investigation across agencies and offices led to three massive maritime interdictions, coordinated by the Joint Interagency Task Force South, and involving the United States Coast Guard and the Guatemalan Navy, in which over 13,000 kilograms of cocaine were seized.

The interdictions led to the prosecution both in the United States and abroad of scores of crew members.  Later prosecutions in the United States focused on dismantling the organization and included charges against the expert welder who built the hidden compartments, associates who helped prepare the vessels for the drug runs, the shore to ship service provider, and a money launderer who help hide the proceeds.  These prosecutions were assisted by numerous parts of the Department of Justice and, with substantial assistance from the Department’s Office of International Affairs, involved coordinating arrests in multiple countries and subsequent extraditions. The United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana has secured convictions of 15 participants and forfeited luxury apartments here and abroad, as well as high end vehicles and cash.

“Our office remains highly focused on disrupting any international drug trafficking that benefits from the illegal sale and consumption of controlled substances,” said U.S. Attorney Duane A. Evans. “Despite the immense scope and duration of this investigation, its outcome was due to effective local and international law enforcement collaborations.  Their tireless efforts resulted in the successful prosecutions of those engaged in this criminal conspiracy.”

“The scope and length of this investigation is a testament to our resolve to disrupt the illegal drug trade, aggressively pursue narcotics traffickers, and keep our communities free from dangerous narcotics,” said Homeland Security Investigations New Orleans Special Agent in Charge David Denton. “HSI, and our law enforcement partners, know that our work isn’t over, but our commitment to the American public is as strong as ever.”

This case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations and the Drug Enforcement Administration, with assistance from the United States Coast Guard.  This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney David Haller.