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Spain Arrests Alleged Colombia Drug Kingpin Hiding in the Limelight

Authorities in Spain have arrested a Colombian with celebrity connections on accusations that he used his jet-set lifestyle as cover for his role as the leader of an international drug ring.

This news brief was published at InSight Crime.

Authorities in Spain have arrested a Colombian with celebrity connections on accusations that he used his jet-set lifestyle as cover for his role as the leader of an international drug ring, illustrating how some criminal leaders are attempting to hide in the limelight.

Juan Pablo Muñoz Hernández, alias “Carlos Ciro,” the alleged leader of a transnational cocaine trafficking ring was arrested on March 6 by Spain’s national police. Muñoz’s arrest follows a two-year joint investigation by authorities in Brazil, Colombia and Spain.

Muñoz was reported to live a luxurious lifestyle as a business magnate with an interest in art and culture, often rubbing elbows with celebrities across South America and Europe. However, according to authorities, Muñoz’s travels on private jets, stays in luxury hotels and friendships with the rich and famous were all a cover for his role as the “king of the European route.”

According to Spanish authorities, Muñoz’s cocaine trafficking network stretched from Colombia, Mexico and Brazil to the United States and the European continent, where ties to Italian mobsters facilitated the movement of the drugs.

The investigation into Muñoz’s network started in 2016 when authorities in Belgium seized two cocaine shipments surpassing 1 ton each hidden inside secret compartments in a cargo container of marble coming from Brazil, according to Brazil’s national police.

Muñoz has been wanted by Brazilian authorities since September 2017 in connection to this investigation. However, he had so far eluded arrest by moving his center of operations to Europe and frequently bouncing around between Greece, Italy, Spain and Germany.

Colombia’s national police told Caracol that Muñoz likely began his criminal career as a member of the now-defunct criminal group the Rastrojos in partnership with the also obsolete Los Comba organization. According to Colombian authorities, Muñoz worked his way up the chain of criminal power following the arrests and deaths of his predecessors. At the time of his arrest, he was likely tied to the powerful Colombian crime group known as the Urabeños.

Muñoz is thought to have assumed various identities, including that of an Italian businessman by the name of “Juan Pedro García.” In this role, Muñoz allegedly ran an import-export company that smuggled cocaine to Italy inside shipments of machinery.

InSight Crime Analysis

While most Colombian drug kingpins have eluded capture by maintaining a low profile, Muñoz is not the first to attempt to hide his criminal dealings behind the facade of a jet-set lifestyle in the celebrity spotlight.

Last month, Colombian authorities arrested an alleged criminal leader who had a similar reputation for extravagance. Sebastián Murillo Echeverry, alias “Lindolfo,” used his marriage to a famed television presenter to launch modeling businesses through which he the laundered criminal proceeds he earned as a top figure in Medellín’s underworld.

Like Muñoz, Murrillo’s social media accounts were flooded with photographs of him alongside well-known actors, singers and models, mainly from Colombia, Mexico and Spain. Many of these famous figures have since rushed to distance themselves from the alleged narcos and have hurriedly deleted the photographs from their personal accounts.

In 2012, Colombian authorities also brought down another alleged criminal leader as he hosted a massive star-studded wedding reception. Camilo Torres, alias “Fritanga,” an alleged leader of the Urabeños’ cocaine trafficking operations in the department of Cordobá who was wanted for extradition to the United States, had faked his death multiple times to elude authorities. But he maintained friendships with famous actors, singers and models who attended the wedding, including a soap opera star who played the role of a “sicario,” or paid assassin, and drunkenly harassed the arresting officers.

With key sectors of Colombia’s underworld thought to be controlled by a network of “invisibles” — long-time drug traffickers who have managed to avoid authorities’ attention — the recent arrests of celebrity-linked narcos may be a sign that more leaders are trying, and failing, to hide in the spotlight.

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