Suspect in cocaine ring noted for horses
By DAVID ADAMS and GRAHAM BRINK
Wanted in Tampa on major drug trafficking charges, Joaquin Valencia is better known in Florida horse country as one of the prize-winning breeders of top-of-the-line Paso Fino stallions.
Valencia, 45, was arrested in Colombia a week ago after U.S. officials requested his extradition. A four-count indictment unsealed in Tampa last week accuses him of importing and distributing several tons of cocaine in dozens of shipments since 1990.
In one example, he was involved in importing 2,420 pounds into New York, according to the indictment. In another, he possessed with the intent to distribute 3,300 pounds in southern California, the indictment said.
Valencia allegedly ran one of the largest-ever maritime drug shipping operations, using several shipping and paper companies in South America and Florida, including America Paper Inc. in Miami and Caribbean Fisheries in Jacksonville, according to the indictment.
The news of his alleged drug involvement met with surprise from Florida horse aficionados, who said Valencia's high-priced horses were among the world's finest.
"His horses are impeccable," said Jennie Williams, a horse writer and broker who once owned one of his horses. "Many, many people in Florida have gone down to his farm in Colombia. Many have bought horses from him at fabulous prices."
It is not the first time Paso Fino breeding has been linked to the drug trade. Another Colombian horse-breeding family, the Ochoas, were among the pioneers of the cocaine boom in the 1990s.
Though Valencia's name is well-known in the Paso Fino community around Ocala, most local farmers declined to comment publicly about his arrest. A spokesperson for the Paso Fino Horse Association of Plant City said the organization was unaware of his Florida ties.
Yet Drug Enforcement Administration agents recently questioned the owners of several Florida farms believed to deal with horses imported from Colombia.
Valencia's farm in Cali, Colombia, known as La Luisa, is considered one of the best breeding stables in the world, with an estimated 900 horses, according to one horse owner. His farm has been a dominant force in show rings in the United States and Colombia for at least the past six years.
La Luisa was voted top breeder at the Paso Fino Federation world championships at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa in 1999. One of Valencia's horses, Insolito, was world champion in 1997.
Local farmers said Valencia had sold numerous horses to the 90 or so Paso Fino horse farms that have sprung up in recent years around Ocala. Another of his horses, Patrimonio, is said to be valued in excess of $1-million, with stud fees of $10,000.
The U.S. market for Paso Fino horses has boomed in recent years after spreading from the Caribbean and South America. "They are really catching on. It's a really huge breed these days, especially in Florida," Williams said.
Paso Fino show horses are famous for their elegant, rapid-stepping, piston-like gait and smooth ride. They were first introduced to this hemisphere from Spain in the late 15th century by the conquistadors during the voyages of Christopher Columbus.
Originally used as trail horses, they were favored by farmers looking for an easy ride in the saddle for long distances over rough terrain. Over the centuries, breeding has become so selective that foals are born naturally with the Paso Fino gait.
They have since become highly coveted. "It's the Mercedes of the horse world. Baby boomers love the comfort and the elegance," Williams said.
Colombian officials arrested Valencia in Bogota on Jan. 31. He remains in Colombia awaiting extradition to the United States, which often takes months or sometimes more than a year.
Valencia apparently evaded capture for several years by using a fake name, Oscar Martinez, according to Colombian police. He has also been linked to Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, heads of the infamous Cali cartel, one of Colombia's largest drug syndicates in the 1990s.
Unlike the violent drug lords of the past, police describe Valencia as the model of the modern-day, well-dressed trafficker, who kept a low profile on his estate in Cali.
The indictment stems from a decadelong investigation called Operation Panama Express in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean that has netted more than 180 tons of cocaine and nabbed about 185 people, according to the DEA.
The continuing operation targets fishing and speed boats smuggling cocaine from South America. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, with other agencies' help, have tracked down many of the boats.
The seizures have been among the largest in the nation's history. For instance, the nearly 16 tons of cocaine seized in two busts on consecutive days last February was estimated to be worth $216-million, based on a wholesale price of $15,000 a kilogram.
Authorities placed the street value of that much cocaine at about $2.8-billion. Some of the boats seized have been scuttled or towed to the Tampa area, where the trials have taken place. Many of the suspects, mostly poor sailors, have received lengthy sentences.
Some have been acquitted after their lawyers argued that the defendants were kidnapped and forced onto the boats in Colombia or that they were unaware that the cocaine had been hidden on board.
Defense lawyers have also argued that the kidnappings fit into a larger theory that a Cali cartel operative, Jose Castrillon Henao, set up the arrests to make the U.S. authorities look good and to curry favor to avoid a life sentence for drug smuggling.
Federal prosecutors denied that any such deal ever existed.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire