DEBT: Alexander Salazar-Duarte said he was forced to smuggle cocaine for the Colombian cartel
A MAN who "owes a debt" to a Colombian cartel linked to the late Pablo Escobar has been jailed for 10 years over a £1.2 million cocaine smuggling plot.
Alexander Salazar-Duarte, 47, was the cartel's organiser in the UK during a conspiracy to bring in shipments of 100 per cent purity cocaine on Avianca Airlines flights via Heathrow Airport, Blackfriars Crown Court heard.
Salazar-Duarte, of Newham, east London, told investigators he was forced to take part in the crime because he owed a debt to the cartel after he lost some of its money during a major international money laundering investigation.
The Colombian national, who has lived in London for several years, was one of 19 members of the crime gang earlier prosecuted in the US after Drug Enforcement Agency officers infiltrated it during an £11 million money laundering operation that spanned the US, South America, Australia and Europe, including the UK.
According to US records, one of the leading members of the cartel, who was also caged, was Severo Escobar Garzon, IV, aka "Junior", Pablo Escobar's nephew.
Salazar-Duarte's sentencing hearing this week was held in chambers for the first hour. Once in open court, Keith Hadrill, defending, said the defendant blamed his previous involvement with the cartel, which saw him jailed in 2011, for the latest offending.
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Mr Hadrill said: "His involvement was because he is in debt to persons outside this county in South America.
"There was no financial gain other than he would have cleared the debt owed to others from the money laundering.
"He was concerned to the effects of any, I won't say threats, but what might happen to his family, and he foolishly succumbed without going to the authorities and he should have."
The court heard Salazar-Duarte was sent details of couriers, who would fly into the airport, by the crime bosses in Colombia.
He then arranged for corrupt airport security guard Farhan Iqbal, 31, to pick the drugs up, and pass them to his brother, Wilmer Salazar-Duarte, who would deliver them to Salazar-Duarte for distribution to drug-dealing gangs in the UK.
The plot was busted on November 23 last year when National Crime Agency (NCA) officers caught Iqbal in the toilets at Terminal five taking possession of 5.9kg of cocaine, with a street value of £480,000, from courier Camilo Pulido-Suarez, 37, who had flown in from Bogota, Colombia.
Iqbal, of Southall, west London, was on sick leave, and not due to work that day, but at 3pm he arrived at Heathrow Terminal three in his uniform, passed through security checks and made his way to Terminal five. Salazar-Duarte's brother, Wilmer Salazar-Duarte, 44, of Manor Park, east London, was arrested waiting outside.
The gang booked flights with connections onto other UK airports, so the bags were subject to less checks in the domestic area.
Three other couriers are known to have flown in between May and November last year, bringing in cocaine worth an estimated £1.2million.
Other other flights were booked, but the couriers never got on the planes.
However, prosecuting Paul Ravdnitz said Salazar-Duarte was high up the chain and played a leading role as the organiser in the UK, ensuring when Iqbal was involved and that couriers got drugs to him that were then passed onto third parties to distribute. Sentencing him to ten years jail, Her Honour Sullivan said: "I have no doubt you played a leading role in this conspiracy. You were, in my view, organising, directing and buying and selling on a commercial scale.
"You had close links to the original source of the drugs."
PACKAGE: Cocaine that was seized by the NCA at Heathrow in November 2017
At an earlier hearing Iqbal was given 13 years, while Pulido-Suarez and Wilmer Salazar-Duarte were jailed for five years three months and seven years six months respectively.
In the US, on December 1 2011 Alexander Salazar-Duarte was sentenced to three years and four months in prison for his role in the international money laundering plot.
Just weeks later in January 2012 Severo Escobar Garzon IV, 55, of Bogota, Colombia, was sentenced to six years, five months in prison.
According to official US records he is a nephew of the late Pablo Escobar.
Following the convictions, a press release from the US States Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Georgia said: "The investigation resulted in the seizure of over $15 million and resulted in the prosecution of high-level targets such as Severo Escobar Garzon, IV."
Other records show Escobar Garzón was involved with his uncle's cartel at the height of its activities.
He stood trial in September 1991 for bringing three tons of cocaine to Europe after being arrested in Switzerland.
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Pablo Escobar was dubbed the KIng of Cocaine after his Colombian "Medellín Cartel" supplied an estimated 80 per cent of all cocaine smuggled into the US. By the early 1990s he was worth an estimated between £19 to £23 billion equivalent to between £37 to £43 billion today, meaning he was one of the richest people on Earth. He was killed in a shoot out with Colombian National Police on December 2 1993, aged just 44.