Sao Paulo, Brazil — A reputed leader of Colombia's biggest drug cartel radically altered his facial appearance with repeated plastic surgeries. But his own words gave him away, thanks to advanced voice recognition technology that has become a key tool in the war against drugs and terrorism.
U.S. agents confirmed the identity of Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia using the equivalent of a vocal fingerprint, his attorney said Friday.
Brazilian police had closed in on Ramirez Abadia's properties in and around Sao Paulo, and were probing his alleged laundering of the Colombian cartel's drug profits. But because of his surgeries and multiple aliases, they lacked the positive identification needed for an arrest warrant.
They got their break by taping his telephone conversations, his attorney, Sergio Alambert, told The Associated Press.
Colombian officials provided a recording they had of Ramirez Abadia, and both sets of recordings were passed to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which made the match, Alambert said.
Richard Mei, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, confirmed the DEA assisted in the Brazilian investigation of the drug lord, whose Norte de Valle cartel allegedly shipped 550 tons of cocaine to the United States from 1990 to 2003. Mei declined further comment.
With the positive ID in hand, police swooped in on 22 locations in six Brazilian states, and caught Ramirez Abadia on Tuesday in a luxurious home with a gym, sauna, plasma TVs, a swimming pool and nearly $1 million in stashed cash.
Authorities on Friday said they tracked down another $1.5 million that had been buried in a garden for Ramirez Abadia near Sao Paulo. The money was moved after his arrest by a Colombian identified only by his first name, Jaime, who was arrested along with his Brazilian chauffeur, police said.
Alambert said Ramirez Abadia, 44, arrived illegally in Brazil four years ago and acknowledges using profits from cocaine shipments by his Norte del Valle cartel to buy businesses that police say included cattle ranches, industrial property, mansions and hotels. A $1 million yacht, jet skis and bullet-proof cars were among the property seized.
Ramirez Abadia told his attorney he left Colombia for Brazil because he feared he might be killed by rival drug gang members and was not involved in any drug trafficking in Brazil. The nation is a major transshipment point for cocaine sent from other South American nations, and Brazilian domestic cocaine consumption is growing dramatically.
American officials say they will soon file a request to extradite Ramirez Abadia to face racketeering charges under a 2004 indictment - charges that could bring a lengthy sentence but not the death penalty. Colombian authorities have hinted they may also seek custody.
Brazil's Supreme Court will decide, a process that could drag on for months or even years. Brazilian law bans sending foreign suspects back home if they face the death penalty or a sentence of more than 30 years.
Ramirez Abadia is also expected to face Brazilian charges of money laundering, gang formation and use of illegal documents while in the country, but Alambert said his client hopes American and Brazilian authorities will make a deal so he can be sent directly to the United States to serve time in prison. Alambert said Ramirez Abadia fears he would be killed in Colombia.