The £1bn cocaine ring: Colombian dealers jailed

For more than a decade, the Colombians Jesus Anibal Ruiz-Henao, 45, and Mario Tascon, 32, his brother-in-law, lived quiet, suburban lives in London while holding down mundane cleaning or bus-driving jobs. But the pair were actually importing cocaine with a street value of £1bn over the course of 10 years - the largest operation of its kind British police have ever uncovered.

Detectives suspect that up to 20,000 people could have been involved in the operation, mainly in Colombia, collecting the drug money which was transferred there in very small quantities. The scope of their network, supplying drugs to every major UK city, was such that, after their arrest, the price on the streets shot up by 50 per cent.

After months of secrecy, their sentences were revealed yesterday when the last of 34 defendants in the case pleaded guilty to assisting another to retain the benefits of drug trafficking, at Southwark Crown Court in London.

Reporting restrictions were imposed when Ruiz-Henao and Tascon were jailed in May last year after pleading guilty to conspiracy to supply class-A drugs as well as money laundering, for which Ruiz-Henao received 10 years and Tascon nine years, to run concurrently. The 34 defendants received sentences totalling more than 350 years.

Detective Superintendent Martin Molloy, of the National Crime Squad, said yesterday: "We are looking at the possibility of the first £1bn drugs cartel that we have ever dealt with. We believe we have ripped the heart out of drug trafficking in the UK."

Ruiz-Henao and Tascon, both from Pereira, Colombia, arrived in Britain in 1990 as asylum-seekers, claiming that they were fleeing persecution, and were granted indefinite leave to remain. By the time of their arrest in November 2003, they were running an empire which was thought to be smuggling around £25m worth of cocaine into the country every year. The men, police said, considered themselves to be untouchable.

But eventually, their network unravelled after a four-year investigation by the National Crime Squad and the Colombian authorities, running in tandem with a Scotland Yard inquiry into linked money-laundering. A total of £3.5m in cash and 645kg of cocaine was seized by police during the course of the two investigations.

The pair lived in Hendon with their wives and were prominent pillars of the Colombian community. Ruiz-Henao was even the director of a charity, the London Colombian Appeal Fund, set up to help orphans and deprived children in his home land and was photographed clutching a winning £100,000 cheque from a Spot the Ball competition.

The leading players in the network in the UK spent their money on minor luxuries, such as hi-tech electrical goods or expensive holidays abroad. Ruiz-Henao was said to have had a taste for travel, spending tens of thousands of pounds on foreign trips. But their ruse was eventually uncovered when they appeared on the National Crime Squad's radar in the late 1990s and were put under surveillance. They employed at least 50 people in Britain, dominating them by inspiring fear for their families back home.

Drugs were smuggled into the UK in a variety of ways - often by couriers, packed in pallets in the back of lorries and covered in mustard to disguise the smell from sniffer dogs.

It was usually taken from Colombia via ship to the coasts of Spain or Portugal, when smaller craft would then smuggle it ashore. Lorries would then bring the drugs into Britain.

Once in this country it was split up into parcels and taken to safe houses around the country from where it was sent to local distributors and street dealers.

The proceeds were laundered back to Colombian drug cartels through various front companies, or sent back in the same lorries in which the drugs had arrived. Up to £250,000 a week was smuggled back to South America by couriers who swallowed euro notes stuffed into condoms.

Ruiz-Henao claimed he could not refuse orders from Colombia and was deemed a "small ant" by South American bosses who threatened him with execution.

Sentencing the pair and recommending them for deportation upon release, Judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith said: "Their fingerprints are not found on the drug packaging, no telephone is shown to have made relevant calls, nothing incriminating is found in their homes. Others carry out their tasks. Meanwhile they make enormous profits from this foul trade."