Two alleged Colombian drug kingpins accused of overseeing shipments of thousands of pounds of cocaine destined for sale in Los Angeles and elsewhere pleaded not guilty Wednesday to federal charges.

In an indictment unsealed late Tuesday, Dicson Penagos-Casanova, 36, and Juan Gabriel Rios Sierra, 34, are charged with spearheading a conspiracy to “coordinate aerial shipments of ton-quantities of cocaine” for sale to cocaine-trafficking syndicates in Central America.

The two were brought to Los Angeles Tuesday after Colombian courts approved an extradition request. If convicted, both face a statutory maximum prison term of life in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

According to the indictment, the suspects would “transport the cocaine via overland routes from production laboratories outside Meta, Colombia, to underground storage facilities near clandestine airstrips in … Venezuela.”

The pair would “arrange for bribes to be paid to Venezuelan military and government officials” in an effort to ensure that aircraft carrying cocaine loads “enjoyed safe passage through Venezuelan airspace,” the indictment alleges.

Using jets that they acquired through “straw purchasers” in the United States, the suspects hired pilots to fly the cocaine to Central American distribution hubs, where the drugs were offloaded for distribution in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the United States and Mexico, the U.S. government alleges.

“By taking key players out of commission, we are disrupting the drug cartels’ ability to import their dangerous narcotics into our country,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker.

“These defendants’ arrival in the U.S. for prosecution marks a significant victory for law enforcement here and in Central and South America, which have worked in concert to ensure justice is achieved in this case,” she said.

The indictment focuses on two air shipments in January and May 2015 involving a combined 3.2 tons of cocaine with a black market wholesale value of $72 million.

Both shipments were ultimately recovered by international law enforcement after plane crashes.

In January 2015, a plane was shot down by the Venezuelan Air Force shortly after takeoff. Soon thereafter, Dutch law enforcement recovered the plane’s cargo — kilogram-sized packages of cocaine that were floating in the Caribbean Sea near Aruba.

The other aircraft crashed into the Caribbean Sea near the Colombian port of Barranquilla in May 2015 after its engine failed.

–City News Service 

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