Pubdate: May 11, 1998
Source: New York Times (NY)
Authors: Clifford Krauss and Larry Rohter


Ricardo is a foot soldier in New York City's drug wars. He has sold
thousands of bags of heroin, worn out countless beepers and become a
familiar figure on the streets of Washington Heights and Harlem. Now, he and
his Dominican-led gang have dramatically expanded their sales operations,
moving well beyond upper Manhattan to deliver Colombian drugs in a territory
from Maryland to Massachusetts. In a recent interview on a park bench in
Harlem, Ricardo took a break from his routine to describe the new vistas
opening to New York's Dominican gangs. "Not long ago Dominicans went no
farther than Queens," said Ricardo, who spoke on condition that his surname
not be used. "Now Dominicans go everywhere." For two decades, Colombia's
drug lords fiercely guarded almost every stage of their business, from the
processing of coca base to the wholesale distribution of cocaine in the
United States. But over the last several years, they have found a new
partner in the delivery and distribution of drugs to the East Coast of the
United States. While there are no hard statistics on the illegal trade,
American law enforcement officials now estimate that Dominican drug
traffickers transport as much as one-third of the approximately 300 metric
tons of cocaine that enters the United States each year. Officials believe
that the Dominicans' share has more than doubled since the early 1990s, and
that the Dominicans' involvement in large-scale distribution has also grown
sharply. The emerging leaders of these organizations -- women as well as
men -- speak English and Spanish interchangeably and may be as comfortable
in a New York nightclub as in a Caribbean village. Officials say they have
camouflaged their operations beneath the legitimate businesses of thriving
Dominican immigrants in the United States, taking advantage of the growing
trade and financial dealings between the two countries. This shift in the
multibillion-dollar drug trade has complicated American antidrug efforts,
which for more than two decades have focused on dismantling highly
sophisticated drug distribution networks run from Colombia. Authorities from
Maryland to Vermont find themselves struggling to locate their new
adversaries in a sea of hard-working immigrants who have spread across the
Northeast in search of a better future for their families. "The Dominicans
are our biggest threat," said George Festa, regional director of the Drug
Enforcement Administration in New England. "We've seen things we've never
seen before, one group dealing crack, cocaine and heroin. We see them making
alliances across the board with everyone, including Chinese and Vietnamese
groups. They are versatile." Many Dominican-Americans have expressed concern
that the well-publicized drug dealing by a tiny minority casts a shadow on a
much larger group. More than a million Dominicans are estimated to live in
the New York City metropolitan area. "The largest drug operations cracked by
the police involve, at most, a hundred people," said Moises Perez, executive
director of Alianza Dominicana, a Washington Heights social services agency.
"These are small operations when you compare it to the size of the
community." Still, drug seizures around the Caribbean illustrate the
changing international pattern of smuggling. In fiscal year 1997, the U.S.
Customs Service in Florida, the main point of entry for drugs from the
Caribbean, confiscated 14,000 pounds of cocaine, a 100 percent increase over
fiscal year 1996. In testimony before a Senate committee earlier this year,
Thomas Constantine, the DEA administrator, said: "Criminals from the
Dominican Republic have emerged as the dominant force in the wholesale
cocaine and heroin trade on the East Coast. Their influence is now spreading
beyond the big-city landscape into the smaller cities and towns." Law
enforcement officials say Dominican drug rings have appeared in every major
city in New England, from Lowell, Mass., to Manchester, N.H. Documents
seized from one ring recently broken up in Worcester, Mass., and wiretaps of
phone conversations indicated that it had sent couriers to New York City an
average of twice a week for more than two years with cash shipments as large
as $80,000 for eventual wire transfers to the Dominican Republic. In
November, 14 members of another Dominican rinc were caught establishing
bases in apartments in Portland and Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Investigators
who arrested them on trafficking charges expressed amazement at the breadth
of their operation, noting that through a beeper operated by the suspects,
814 calls had been detected over a 30-day period from possible purchasers
around Maine and wholesale suppliers in New York City. Ricardo's northern
Manhattan gang is typical. It once sold cocaine and heroin only to local
buyers and small-time dealers who drove to New York City from upstate New
York. But over time, Ricardo said, the head of his organization realized
that he could increase profits by putting his people on buses and sending
them as far north as Boston and as far south as Baltimore with drugs packed
inside stuffed animals and resealed coffee cans. (Ricardo is of Puerto Rican
origin; the leadership of the gang is reserved for Dominicans.) As a recent
classified Justice Department intelligence report put it: "The expansion of
the Dominican distribution threat outward from New York City is especially
noteworthy because most state and local authorities are not prepared to
handle it. Over half of U.S. states have reported Dominican criminal
activity, an indicator that the Dominican drug problem is beginning to
assume a national perspective." A Partnership Begins: Plenty of Drug Jobs
for Needy Immigrants

The drug trade involvement of Dominican immigrants, especially those in the
United States illegally, goes back more than two decades. The Dominican
migration to New York City began to explode just as a broader range of
Americans began to acquire a taste for cocaine in the early 1970s. As the
drug flowed in ever-greater amounts from Colombia and as Dominican
immigration waves to the United States far outstripped Colombian migrations,
law enforcement officials say, Colombian cartel bosses hired the Dominicans,
numerous and eager for work, as their couriers, street sellers and hit men.
When the crack epidemic boomed in the mid-1980s, Dominican street
organizations based in Washington Heights took advantage of the expanding
sales volumes and gradually began to do some wholesaling of their own. Like
previous generations of ethnic organized-crime syndicates, they were
flamboyant and violent and competed for turf, sometimes by shooting at one
another out the windows of souped-up sports cars speeding up and down
Broadway and the Grand Concourse in the South Bronx. But the new generation
of Dominican dealers has acquired stealth and sophistication in recent
years, law enforcement officials say. They have learned to avoid police
attention by tempering their violence and concealing their wealth.
Dominicans have also benefited by offering the Colombian drug lords a
cheaper alternative to business partnerships with Mexican gangs. A
Mexican-Colombian rivalry was created in the early 1990s when the Colombian
cartels began paying Mexican drug gangs in cocaine, in part to avoid having
to launder cash, and gave them as much as half of each load transported into
the United States. The Mexican gangs began selling it directly themselves.
The Colombians have struck a less generous deal with their Dominican
partners, paying in cash or with no more than 25 percent of the cocaine
shipments, officials say. The Dominican gangs are much smaller than the
Mexican cartels, and for the moment, the officials add, they are no threat
to their Colombian partners. Rene Antonio Aquino, a Dominican who is
awaiting trial on drug charges in Hartford, Conn., was one of the pioneers
in expanding the territory of Dominican gangs, according to federal drug
agents and Connecticut law enforcement officials. Aquino, 34, fits the
profile of the typical Dominican immigrant to New York City. He arrived as a
teen-ager with his parents, learned English reasonably well and became an
ardent Yankees fan. Although he never finished high school, he managed to
buy a bodega named Diana's on Wilson Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and
enjoyed a middle-class life complete with sports cars and a couple of rental
houses in Queens. But there was another side to Aquino. He was arrested on
minor drug charges in 1989 and 1990, and federal drug agency officials say
he continued as a minor dealer, dodging the law by jumping bail and carrying
false identification papers. By the mid-1990s, the officials said, Aquino
and a series of partners had considerably expanded their operations. They
carved out a niche as heroin wholesalers, transporting the drug across
upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Rhode Island and Connecticut,
according to the officials. The Connecticut deputy chief state's attorney,
Christopher Morano, said Aquino and his partners dispatched runners to
Colombia to buy heroin, which was ferried by plane and car to Caracas,
Venezuela. The drugs were carried into the United States by Dominican and
Puerto Rican women who traveled to Caracas posing as tourists. After sunning
themselves on the Venezuelan beaches at the organization's expense, the
women would sew the heroin into the linings of their jackets and shoes for
the trip back to New York. From Kennedy Airport, Morano said, the heroin was
loaded into a fleet of cars honeycombed with secret compartments. It was
bound for distribution not only in Hartford but in cities in Rhode Island,
Pennsylvania, Ohio and Massachusetts. According to informers recruited from
its ranks, the organization would from time to time ship the cars back to
the Dominican Republic, with the cash proceeds of drug sales hidden behind
trapdoors, investigators said. "Tony decided he could cut out the Colombian
middlemen in New York and put more money in his pocket," said Michael
Edelwich, a Hartford police detective who worked on the case. Aquino is
awaiting trial in Hartford on charges of racketeering, drug trafficking,
conspiracy to commit kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder. His
indictment is sealed. John Tauger, his lawyer, denied that his client was
involved in the case. But Morano and Hartford police detectives say that in
public housing projects there, Aquino's ring distributed bags of heroin
stamped with several brand names, including "Gunfire" and "High Power." They
said street dealers sold as many as 3,000 bags a day, sweeping through the
projects four times weekly. It took the Hartford police nearly two years to
trace the origins of the heroin. As they began arresting the organization's
runners in 1995, detectives said, they noticed an unusual pattern: Every
suspect placed a call from the jail to Diana's bodega in Bushwick and asked
to speak with a man called Uncle. Using their informers, the detectives
eventually identified Uncle as Aquino. Today Aquino's bodega is shut tight,
showing nothing more than a metal gate that serves as a canvas for graffiti.
At a recent bail hearing, he stood emotionless in an orange jumpsuit and
spotless white sneakers. His short beard was neatly trimmed, and he held his
hands loosely behind his back. Hartford detectives said he had shown more
emotion when they transported him to Connecticut after his arrest on Oct. 9
in Jackson Heights, Queens. In the police car then, he showed off pictures
of his family and asked how the police had penetrated his organization.
"He'd squint, as if wondering, 'How did you do that?"' recalled Detective
Robert Lawlor. "At the end of it all, he shook our hands." A Network
Spreads: Drug Trade Corrupts Legitimate Commerce:

The expanding trade between the Dominican Republic and the United States has
given rise to a host of new businesses. Moving goods routinely between the
two countries, these companies offer drug traffickers a ready network to
exploit, provided that the businesspeople involved can be coerced or
persuaded to move a different type of product. The experiences of Jose
Rafael Knipping, a failed Dominican fruit canner, show how legitimate
commerce can give way to illicit trade, Dominican law enforcement officials
say. Knipping had long hoped to penetrate the American market with fruit
canned in his factory outside Santo Domingo, Haina Agro-Industrial. But by
late 1996 his debts were growing. So he placed an advertisement in the
Spanish-language edition of The Miami Herald, offering to sell the company
for $1.6 million, and waited for a response. Dominican officials say they
believe that the advertisement caught the eye of powerful Colombian
traffickers who made Knipping an offer: Join the drug trade and save your
business. Knipping has denied that he was approached by Colombians. But he
has told Dominican investigators that his partner was contacted by a
Dominican living in New York who offered to buy the factory for about $1
million, on one condition. The prospective buyer asked Knipping's partner to
ship several hundred pounds of jellies, sweets and juices to warehouses in
upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Soon after the request was made, the
Colombians shipped cocaine by high-speed motorboats to the Dominican
Republic, where it was repackaged at Knipping's factory into cans of guava
paste, Dominican investigators say. Knipping has denied any knowledge of
this operation. Then, in March 1997, U.S. Customs Service agents working in
the Port of Newark inspected a shipment of 950 cans of guava paste.
Twenty-six of the cans were suspiciously separated from the others by string
and bore serial numbers that ended in "2222." When the agents opened the
cans, they found 253 pounds of cocaine worth more than $2 million, according
to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. They replaced the
cocaine-filled cans with others bearing identical markings, and New York
City police detectives followed the shipment when it left the dock. They
watched with hidden cameras as the cans were unloaded at a Dominican-owned
food distribution warehouse on West 220th Street. Four Dominicans -- three
city residents and one businessman from the island who had learned his
English as an exchange university sociologist years ago -- picked up the
cans and were arrested as they drove with the illegal shipment down Broadway
in a black Ford van. All have been convicted on drug charges and are
awaiting sentencing. Knipping, who was in New York at the time of the
shipment, fled the United States but was arrested in Santo Domingo. He has
pleaded not guilty to drug-trafficking charges and is awaiting trial there.
The criminal complaint against him alleges that the cocaine shipment was
arranged by Orsi Tineo, the prospective purchaser of the factory. Tineo, one
of those arrested in New York transporting the guava paste, has pleaded
guilty to trafficking charges. But Dominican investigators say this
small-time drug dealer, who works as a Manhattan apartment painter, did not
have the $1 million to buy Knipping's factory. Adm. Julio Cesar Ventura
Bayonet, inspector general of the Dominican armed forces, supervised the
investigation of Haina Agro-Industrial. He said it is likely that Tineo or
one of his associates was actually an agent of bigger Colombian traffickers,
who "just love to snap up failing factories and companies" in the Dominican
Republic. Tineo's lawyer, David Wickstrom, denied that his client was a
front for the Colombians but acknowledged that Tineo did not have the means
to buy a factory. A Market Develops: Money Transfer Outfits Get Drug Profits
Home All drug traders face the same difficulty. Sales of illicit substances
produce mountains of cash, which must be laundered, some way or another,
into the legitimate economy. Dominican drug dealers have several means of
moving money back to their homeland. Many Dominican residents of the United
States and Dominican-Americans return home several times a year, offering a
perfect camouflage if they agree to tape wads of cash onto their bodies.
They also mail home millions of dollars in checks and money orders, which
could be used as a cover. The money is just as likely to move through one of
the scores of money transfer establishments that have cropped up across the
East Coast in recent years, law enforcement officials say. One of these
companies, Remesas America Oriental, was one of the fastest-growing
Dominican businesses in the country -- until the arrests and convictions
last year of more than 20 of its employees in New York, Massachusetts, Rhode
Island, Connecticut, Florida and Puerto Rico. They were convicted of
laundering more than $800,000 in a series of transactions orchestrated by
Customs agents in a sting operation. In 1996 alone, the Treasury Department
said, the company handled most of the transfers from New York to the
Dominican Republic, $130 million, or almost 24 percent of the total. A
federal complaint filed in Manhattan last year offered a road map of how
Dominican drug gangs laundered their proceeds. In one August 1994
transaction, for example, an informer went to a Remesas branch on Jerome
Avenue in the Bronx and met with Ramon Corporan and Giselle Moya, both
managers, to transmit $40,000 to the Dominican Republic. To make clear that
he was in the drug business, the informer, according to the complaint,
"advised Corporan that Hartford was a good city to open a money-transmitting
business because there was a substantial quantity of Dominicans selling
drugs in the vicinity of Main Street." The employees agreed to handle the
transaction, the complaint charges, and a week later two undercover Customs
agents posing as recipients of cash went to an office of Consorcio Oriental,
Remesas' parent company, in Santo Domingo, where they received the $40,000.
According to the complaint, "The Customs agents were given receipts, which
reflected that the cash had been transmitted over a period of six days in
eight transactions, each under $10,000." This is important because American
law requires banks and other institutions to report all transfers of more
than $10,000. "The sender and recipient names on each of the eight receipts
were fictitious," the document read. Back in Santo Domingo, Roberto Lopez,
an owner of Consorcio Oriental, was recently doing some paperwork in his
office off the parking lot of a hotel. His secretary offered a guest coffee
or juice, adding tartly, "We don't poison." In an interview, Lopez expressed
shock about the bad fortune that had befallen his American operations and
blamed his top manager in the United States for the criminal case. "Corporan
had worked seven years for Banco de Ponce," Lopez said. "He's an American
citizen. He speaks perfect English. Who could have guessed that he would do
such a thing?" The Customs Service estimates that New York City transfer
establishments sent at least $500 million to the Dominican Republic in 1996
and again in 1997, double the amount sent in 1993. Senior agents in New York
estimate that one-fifth of the wire transfers come from the proceeds of drug
transactions, "and that's very conservative," said John Forbes, a Customs
investigator. For the last six months, the Treasury Department required 15
of the largest companies transferring money to the Dominican Republic to
report all transactions larger than $750, well below the $10,000 threshold
set by federal law. The move had an immediate effect. In the last four
months of 1997, the total value of transfers of $749 or less rose by more
than $24 million, to $104.6 million, said Treasury Department officials.
Transactions of $750 to $3,000 -- which were now being reported to federal
authorities -- fell by nearly two-thirds, the officials said. As Forbes
said: "The money laundering is definitely going up as Dominican immigration
goes up and the interaction between the Colombians and Dominicans goes up.
And New York is ground zero."

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Checked-by: "Rolf Ernst"