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The leader of an extensive drug and money laundering ring has eluded the FBI for more than 20 years.
The quiet, wealthy neighborhood of Cliffside Park, New Jersey, seemed to be an unlikely place to find a criminal gang. But its isolation and security was exactly what the mastermind of a drug and money-laundering ring was looking for. Pedro Uribe was a 38-year-old Colombian with direct ties to the infamous Medellin cartel. According to FBI Special Agent Gary Penrith, he ran his criminal organization with a ruthless hand:
It later turned out that the man was innocent. But that only added to Uribe’s fearsome reputation.
In May of 1986, the FBI set up around-the-clock surveillance of several of Uribe’s known properties. They soon learned that, in order to appear normal, people pretending to be family members were trucked in on weekends. The surveillance showed that these fake families changed from week to week. Special Agent Penrith investigated the case:
Using these houses as a base, Uribe developed a simple but effective money-laundering scheme. Low-level operatives, nicknamed “smurfs” by the FBI, were dispatched from the houses to banks throughout the New York Metropolitan area. These smurfs used small amounts of Uribe’s drug money to buy legitimate money orders from many different banks. At the height of the operation, seven of Uribe’s smurfs were identified laundering $50,000 a day, or almost $2 million a week.
The FBI knew Uribe was laundering millions, but they had yet to prove that he dealt cocaine. Then, on September 3, 1986, they got lucky. Outside of one of Uribe’s safe houses, agents observed the delivery of some mysterious boxes. Gambling that they contained cocaine, the FBI tried to catch Uribe red handed. In the summer of 1986, they made their move and swarmed the house. In their search, the FBI found 307 kilos of 95% pure cocaine wrapped in small plastic bags. The total amount had a street value of $7 million.
FBI agents searched Uribe’s other safe houses. In one, a specially trained dog led the FBI directly to a large potted plant. When the plant was examined, agents found $800,000 in cash covered with enough traces of cocaine to have attracted the dog’s attention.
However, Uribe and his henchmen had been tipped off about the raids and managed to escape. Today, he and his associates are wanted fugitives.
Pedro Uribe could be commuting between Colombia and the United States. He is known to have relatives in New Jersey. Two of Uribe’s partners in crime are also Colombian nationals. They have been identified as brothers Luis and Ivan Arango. Another Uribe henchman, Miguel Villegas, is believed to be in the Los Angeles area.