Cartel leader gets 40 years

He was found guilty of drug smuggling charges in October.

Published February 2, 2007

TAMPA - A top leader in Colombia's notorious Cali drug cartel was sentenced to 40 years in prison Thursday.

In October, a federal jury found Joaquin Mario Valencia-Trujillo, 49, guilty of drug smuggling and conspiracy charges. Prosecutors say his operation shipped more than 100 tons of cocaine a year into the United States at its height.

Before announcing the sentence, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich told Valencia he hurt thousands of people by trafficking drugs.

"Mr. Valencia, you are responsible for terrible harm in the United States," Kovachevich said. "And you did it all in the name of greed. And you didn't have to do it."

According to the extradition agreement with Colombia that brought Valencia to the United States, prosecutors were not allowed to ask for a life sentence. Valencia's lawyers asked for a 30-year term based on their client's age.

Kovachevich disagreed. She said she has sentenced dozens of poor Colombians whose only hope of feeding their families was to participate in the drug trade Valencia helped perpetuate. Some of them received terms of 20 years or more. So Valencia had to be punished accordingly, she said.

In addition to the prison term, Kovachevich also required Valencia to pay $110-million in restitution.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Ruddy called the sentence a fitting ending to a long, surreal investigation. Valencia is the biggest catch ever netted by Operation Panama Express, a Tampa investigation targeting drug smugglers in the eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean.

"There were days where it seemed like you were living in a Tom Clancy novel," Ruddy said.

Authorities believe Valencia was involved in the Cali cartel as far back as 1988. He managed to elude detection for years by using the name Oscar Martinez, according to court documents. He was arrested in January 2003 and extradited to the United States in March 2004.

Valencia was accused of running one of the largest-ever maritime drug shipping operations using several shipping and paper companies in South America and Florida.

Valencia declined to say anything at his sentencing. His lawyers, Matthew Farmer and Ronald Kurpiers, said their client was unfazed by the sentence. Throughout the trial, they questioned the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses, many of whom were convicted criminals facing lengthy prison sentences.

"On with the appeal," Kurpiers said.

Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.