Pubdate: May 11, 1998 Source: New York Times (NY) Contact: http://www.nytimes.com/ Authors: Clifford Krauss and Larry Rohter LETHAL PARTNERS: DOMINICANS NOW DOMINANT IN EAST COAST DRUG TRADE 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." - --- Checked-by: "Rolf Ernst"