Colombian sanctioned as drug ‘kingpin’ faces cocaine-smuggling charge in Miami

A reputed Colombian drug trafficker designated by U.S. authorities as a “kingpin” pleaded not guilty in Miami federal court Thursday to a conspiracy charge accusing him of smuggling cocaine for an infamous cartel into the United States.

Jhon Fredy Zapata-Garzon, 45, who is accused of collaborating with the Clan del Golfo cartel, was extradited from Colombia on Wednesday. He said little during the brief court hearing as his defense attorney agreed to his detention as he awaits trial.

Zapata-Garzon, aka “Candado” and “Messi,” was indicted by a Miami federal jury in 2021 on a single charge of conspiring to distribute five kilos of cocaine knowing it would be imported into the United States between January 2009 and November 2017. If convicted, the offense carries up to life in prison. The four-page indictment provides scant details of his alleged drug-trafficking activity.

Zapata-Garzon’s defense attorney, Andres Felipe Daza, declined to comment after his client’s first federal court hearing before Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres.

The case, prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ellen D’Angelo, follows sanctions by the Treasury Department that designated Zapata-Garzon to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin list in December 2020 “for materially assisting the international narcotics trafficking activities of the Clan del Golfo in Colombia.” The cartel, known as a notorious paramilitary organization, has wielded tremendous power throughout Colombia’s drug trade, according to U.S. authorities.

In addition, three of Zapata-Garzon’s family members and associates were also blacklisted, along with four businesses they owned or controlled, according to the Kingpin sanctions by the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Treasury Department.

Zapata-Garzon was found to be an “important drug trafficker who was responsible for facilitating the shipment of cocaine on behalf of the Clan del Golfo,” according to his designation under the Kingpin Act. In the fall of 2018, he sent a number of shipments of cocaine totaling about 4,500 kilograms, U.S. authorities said in announcing the sanctions. On the orders of Clan del Golfo, Zapata- Garzon supported and funded mayoral candidates in several municipalities in Colombia, they said.

President Barack Obama identified the Clan del Golfo, also known as Los Urabeños, as a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker” under the Kingpin Act in 2013. Five years later, U.S. Attorney General William Barr identified Clan del Golfo as a “top transnational organized crime threat” against the United States and its allies.

According to Colombian authorities, Zapata-Garzon and seven of his closest collaborators were arrested between late December 2020 and early January 2021 in a major police and military crackdown on the Clan del Golfo. More than 180 people associated with the organization were captured throughout the country, authorities said.

“Zapata Garzón ran a narcotrafficking and money laundering organization associated with the Clan del Golfo,” Major General Fernando Murillo Orrego, head of the Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol, said in an announcement after the sweep. He said that Zapata-Garzón shared routes for drug trafficking to Europe and the United States with the Clan del Golfo.