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10/30/2007

Ploy to smuggle cocaine in shoes trips up drug ringleaders

Filed under: belize,General,global islands,wealth — admin @ 11:05 am

Unwitting couriers lured with cash, agents say.

The Mexican vacation was supposed to be free for dozens of Columbus-area residents. But they paid the price when they went to prison for smuggling drugs home in their sneakers.

Most were in their early 20s, recruited by members of an international drug ring that shipped cocaine from the Central American country of Belize to Columbus by way of Houston.

The lure was an all-expenses-paid vacation to Chetumal, Mexico, and $1,000 in cash when they returned.

The trip sold itself, said Internal Revenue Service agent Bernard Clark. “All the kids started jumping on board.”

Some of the couriers didn’t know until they got to Mexico what they were being asked to do, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robyn Jones Hahnert. Others were told before they left home.

When they returned to Port Columbus, they wore the shoes with cocaine hidden in the soles.

Investigators got a break when the ringleaders became bolder and greedier.

The trips became more frequent. Shipments that started with a pound or so of cocaine in each shoe doubled to more than 2 pounds apiece. And the shoes eventually caught the eye of U.S. customs agents.

“They had women wearing men’s size 12 shoes,” Jones Hahnert said. She likened them to “Bozo the clown shoes.”

More than 30 couriers ended up serving a few months to a few years in federal prison. Others charged in the case included people who recruited the couriers and kept an eye on them once they had the cocaine, and people who sold the drugs in the Columbus area.

But for 10 years, the three brothers thought to be the ringleaders of the operation remained at large.

Now, thanks to a U.S. marshal who never gave up on the case, two of the three are in custody, accused of smuggling 74 kilos — nearly 163 pounds — of cocaine into Columbus, Jones Hahnert said.

All are natives of Belize and took refuge there when they learned they were being sought, Jones Hahnert said.

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