A reputed Mexican drug kingpin accused of raking in millions of dollars while pumping tons of heroin into the United States has been extradited to face trial in Philadelphia.
Antonio Laredo, 51, of Cuernavaca, Mexico, pleaded not guilty to more than 75 counts including conspiracy, drug distribution, and money laundering during a brief appearance in federal court Tuesday. His wife, Mercedes Barrios Hernández, who was sent to the U.S. last week for prosecution, also denied the charges.
The hearing came four years after the couple, several members of their family, and associates were indicted in a narcotics probe that involved federal agents and local law enforcement in two countries and several states.
Handcuffed and sullen, Laredo said little during his hearing Tuesday — a far cry from his demeanor during his first U.S. court appearance in Philadelphia last week, when he claimed that Mexican authorities had tortured him and kept him from communicating with his wife while they awaited extradition.
“It’s been six months since I’ve been detained,” he told U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda K. Caracappa through an interpreter on Thursday. “I’ve been beaten. My wife was also detained, and I haven’t been able to contact her.”
Until last week, both had remained in custody in Mexico after their arrests in September in Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacán, a town of 30,000 about five hours from Mexico border with Guatemala. The couple had moved there from their home about 13 hours away in Cuernavaca after receiving news of their indictment in the U.S., investigators said.
If they were trying to hide, they ultimately failed to blend in. Mexican news accounts described the couple arriving in the poverty-stricken village in 2015 with a fleet of luxury cars. While there, the reports said, Laredo bought ranch land paying the full price in cash, and forged highly public relationships with local politicians.
Laredo’s Center City lawyer, Frances Alperin Shapiro, declined to comment Tuesday on the case Laredo now faces in the U.S. — one that comes with a mandatory life sentence if he is convicted.
The smuggling network he and his family allegedly oversaw stands out amid Mexico’s thriving narcotics trade. Investigators believe it operated largely independently of the massive drug cartels that dominate illicit business south of the border.
According to court filings, Laredo and his brother Ismael sourced the opium gum they used from an independent broker and processed it themselves. They also turned to family members to oversee operations inside the U.S., including Laredo’s son-in-law Joseph Torres, who helmed the organization’s Philadelphia operations.
But to describe the business as a “mom and pop” outfit would mischaracterize its scope and size. Between 2008 and 2014, prosecutors say, the organization smuggled more than 30 kilograms of heroin a month to distributors in Philadelphia, Camden, Chicago, and New York — much of it in secret compartments in custom-built car and motorboat batteries or in sealed fruit and vegetable cans.
Couriers transported the drugs to stash houses across Philadelphia, and funneled millions in revenue back to Mexico through at least 60 dummy bank accounts. Their business was so lucrative that authorities estimated one Philadelphia distributor alone was sending up to $1.2 million a month between 2009 and 2011.
And just like larger competitors, prosecutors allege, the organization protected its supply and network through assaults, kidnappings, and threats of murder and arson.