- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

A defendant in a major Colombian drug-trafficking investigation has been set free after a federal jury rejected charges that he conspired with reputed drug lord “Don” Pablo Rayo-Montano and his associates to ship tons of cocaine into the United States.

Jailed for more than two years, Jaime Micolta was arrested in the United States in connection with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s “Operation Twin Oceans,” which targeted Rayo-Montano’s drug cartel. The drug gang was accused of smuggling more than 15 tons of cocaine per month from Colombia to the United States and Europe.

A federal jury in the U.S. District Court in Washington acquitted Mr. Micolta of drug conspiracy charges last week. He’s since been freed from the D.C. Jail.

“My client had always maintained his innocence,” defense attorney A. Eduardo Balarezo said Wednesday. “He is thankful that the jury took its duty seriously and is gratified by the verdict.”

The Justice Department had sought to prove that Mr. Micolta, a Colombian citizen, opened bank accounts and scouted out real estate for Rayo-Montano, whom the DEA has called the head of one of the world’s biggest drug organizations until his arrest in Brazil in 2006.

When announcing the end of the operation, along with the arrest of more than 100 people and the seizure of 52 tons of cocaine and $70 million in assets, former DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy said the Rayo-Montano organization “had its own private rogue navy to run a drug business that was nearly as sophisticated as a small nation.”

During the investigation into the Rayo-Montano cartel, law enforcement officials seized a helicopter, two luxury yachts, fishing trawlers and at least 10 other boats. Three islands owned by the cartel also were seized.

The three-year probe involved the DEA and federal police agencies from Brazil, Panama and Colombia.

Mr. Micolta’s role, according to prosecutors, involved opening bank accounts in other people’s names then using the accounts to deposit drug profits.

But Mr. Balarezo argued that the case against his client was short on hard evidence and built on the testimony of unreliable cooperating witnesses seeking a break at sentencing in their own criminal cases.

The Justice Department declined Wednesday to comment on the verdict.