A drug cartel leader escapes an FBI sting operation.
In the South American nation of Colombia, a life and death struggle has been raging for decades. It’s a battle over drugs, and one that promises the victors both money and power. Here, drug cartels have made terrorism and political assassination a way of life. Their violent influence is felt around the world, especially in the United States. Special Agent William A. Gavin of the Miami, Florida, FBI:
Eighty percent of the world’s cocaine comes from Colombia and the drug lords aim to keep it that way. To fight the cartels, the FBI initiated one of the riskiest sting operations in history, the impact of which is still felt today.
During the late 1980’s, drug runners were seeking out the latest communication devices, especially ones that couldn’t be traced. Seizing on this opportunity, FBI agents set up a small shop called R.A. Communications in Miami, Florida. The store specialized in electronics. The receptionist, Sandy, and the manager, Jay, were both highly trained FBI agents. According to Agent Gavin, the drug runners showed up, asking for the latest in car phones, ship-to-shore radios, beepers, remote phones, and airplane telecommunications devices:
Word on the street was that R.A. Communications had the best in untraceable phones. The drug runners began to trust the people who worked there. FBI Assistant Special Agent Tim McNally was one of the men on the task force:
Soon, major players in the drug world began to drop into the R.A. “club house”. One of them was a Colombian national named Jesus Penalver, a man who handled regular shipments of cocaine, often worth as much as $50 million. Agent McNally:
Inside the “club house”, Penalver felt safe enough to make drug deals using the company phone, and soon, Penalver’s drug buddies began to join him. It was not uncommon to see three different drug dealers doing business at the same time. One of those traffickers was cartel operative Julio Marco Cruz, a customer and purchaser who, in November of 1988, was preparing to receive a shipment in excess of 100 kilos of cocaine. The plan called for the large shipment to be delivered to the United States on a boat called the Tremolo. The FBI had just enough time to alert the Coast Guard.
On November 19th, 1988, when the Tremolo entered U.S. waters, the US Coast Guard moved in. Under the Tremolo’s floorboards, agents discovered over 800 pounds of cocaine. The street value was nearly $40 million.
The next day, Cruz showed up at R.A. Communications with his bodyguards. Amazingly, he seemed to know nothing about the Tremolo’s capture. Jay, the undercover agent at R.A., made a quick decision. To keep his cover intact, Jay told Cruz about the drug bust on the Tremolo. Cruz was furious, but he never suspected that the men who told him about the bust were, in fact, responsible for it. He continued to use the same telephones he had used before, and the FBI continued to gather information.
It appeared as if the R.A. sting might go on indefinitely. But things got tense when Penalver began forcing himself on Sandy, the female undercover agent working there. The FBI feared that Sandy and their other agents might be at risk. Agent McNally:
Eighteen months after they began the operation, the FBI brought charges against nearly 100 drug traffickers. R.A. Communications was shut down. For Tim McNally and the others, it was a huge success:
Julio Marco Cruz, the mastermind behind the Tremolo drug run, was sentenced to 17 years for drug trafficking. He has since been released, but his boss remains at large.