One of the oldest inmates in the federal prison system — a 94-year-old man given a life term for overseeing a Colombia-to-Los Angeles drug trafficking operation — died this week, days before a court hearing to discuss whether he could be released due to his age and infirmity.

Aging prisoners. Photo via
Aging prisoners. Photo via

Carlos Tapia-Ponce died Monday at a federal prison medical facility in North Carolina, according to a Los Angeles federal court filing obtained by City News Service.

He was convicted 25 years ago in Los Angeles following a 1989 raid that resulted in the discovery of a record-breaking quantity of cocaine in a Sylmar warehouse.

Authorities said the 21.4 tons of Colombian-produced cocaine found stacked in boxes had been sitting in storage as the result of a pay dispute between Mexican smugglers and Colombian cartels and had reached unusual proportions.

The bust was the largest in the history of the United States, enough for 1.38 billion cocaine doses — five for every person in the country at the time, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Stacked properly, the 2.2 pound bricks of cocaine would have been the size of two school buses, with a street value of roughly $7 billion.

Also in the warehouse was $12 million in $100 and $20 bills, stored in boxes.

Seven people were arrested in the case, including the organization’s “patriarch,” Tapia-Ponce, who was convicted along with two others in November 1990 of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.

U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. sentenced Tapia-Ponce to life in federal prison in 1991. There is no probation in the federal system.

The defendant’s attorney, Ellen Lake — Tapia-Ponce’s original defense lawyer died two years ago at age 77 — last month asked the judge to order her client released so he could spend whatever time he has left with family in his native Mexico.

“In all respects he’s been a model prisoner,” Lake said during the Jan. 13 hearing.

But Hatter responded that he did not have the authority to order that the prisoner be set free.

“It’s completely within the discretion of the Bureau of Prisons,” the judge said.

A now-canceled hearing was on Hatter’s calendar Monday to discuss any further issues.

— City News Service

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