MIAMI - One of the most famous names in the history of Colombian drug trafficking, Fabio Ochoa, went on trial Wednesday in Miami on charges that he conspired to ship tons of cocaine into the United States a decade after he says he retired from the business.
Ochoa, 45, "is one of the kings of cocaine," prosecutor Richard Gregorie told the jury.
The trial, expected to last four to five weeks, is the biggest federal drug case in Miami since Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega was convicted in 1992. It is being held amid tight security with the identities of jurors kept secret to avoid tampering.
Ochoa faces a maximum prison sentence of 30 years if convicted.
The government's case has been dogged by scandal after revelations of improper conduct by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Key pieces of the government evidence, including transcripts of telephone wiretaps and tapes from a hidden bugging device, also have been questioned by defense attorneys as being full of errors.
But prosecutors presented new evidence in court Wednesday, providing details about how Ochoa allegedly was drawn back into the drug trade.
Ochoa was short of "liquid cash" when he purchased a $2.8-million debt of a Colombian trafficker friend in exchange for land, Gregorie said. In order to recover the debt, Ochoa lent "his expertise and his knowledge" to advise the trafficker, Alejandro Bernal, a close friend and former drug partner, he added.
Bernal's group was involved in a massive conspiracy to smuggle 20 to 30 tons of cocaine a month to the United States. Bernal pleaded guilty to charges last month in return for a reduced sentence. He has agreed to testify for the government.
Other key participants in the conspiracy also are set to testify against Ochoa. They include his cousin Santiago Velez, described by the government as "Ochoa's middleman" in dealings with the traffickers, and Bernal's accountant, Alberto Gallego.
Besides those witnesses, the government's case is strengthened by other new evidence not contained in the original 1999 indictment. Prosecutors now say Bernal paid Ochoa part of the debt, $1-million, through an intermediary and received $150,000 for his part in a nearly 10-ton cocaine shipment.
Ochoa admits his past drug ties, but denies he returned to trafficking. His attorney, Roy Black, told the court that after his arrest, Ochoa put up a Web site and billboards around Colombia declaring: "Yesterday I made a mistake. Today I am innocent."
Black focused his opening remarks on the government tapes and prosecutors' description of Bernal as a "broker" of drug deals.
The government's characterization of Bernal was "so woefully inadequate for (Bernal) as to be laughable," Black said. Bernal was in league with some of Colombia's most violent paramilitary leaders while running drugs for the world's premier trafficker in Mexico, he said.
Black said the government tapes prove Ochoa's innocence. He cited lengthy conversations between Bernal and an astrologist Bernal used to check if his trafficking partners were "compatible with his astrological charts." Black suggested that Ochoa's name never came up in those conversations, indicating he had no role in the organization.
"The evidence they claim to have against Mr. Ochoa is simply not there," Black said.