April 1, 2005 -- This week in Miami, while two drug defendants face a jury of their peers, one of their alleged co-conspirators remains safe and sound. The defendants are charged in a drug conspiracy case that involved the smuggling of two tons of cocaine from Colombia to France.
U.S. and French investigators say Nayef bin Sultan bin Fawwaz al-Shalaan, a member of the Saudi royal family, used his private 727 jet to smuggle drugs from South America to Le Borget airport outside of Paris. Under the rules of diplomatic immunity, when the prince landed at the airport in his private jet, his entourage received little or no inspection, a French official said.
The prince is now under indictment in the United States and France, but he remains in Saudi Arabia, a royal fugitive, protected by his powerful family, according to U.S. drug agents.
Doris Mangeri Salazar, a real estate agent from Coral Gables, Fla., who is described as the prince's former girlfriend, and her friend Ivan Lopez Vanegas, 49, are on trial in Miami. A Swiss banker alleged to have been the money launderer in the drug trafficking scheme has been indicted but is in Spain, which refuses to extradite him.
'No Doubt Whatsoever'
There is an outstanding international arrest warrant for the prince, but there is little law enforcement can do because neither the United States nor France has an extradition treaty with Saudi Arabia.
According to a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Miami, Joe Kilmer, the investigation yielded plenty of evidence of the prince's participation in the crime ring. "We feel there's no doubt whatsoever that the prince had every bit of knowledge as to what he was involved with," he said.
The Saudi government has not made the prince available for questioning, according to U.S. agents, and has done little to cooperate with the investigation. The Saudi government has not made any official comment on the case.
The former special agent in charge of the Miami office of the DEA, Tom Raffanello, said that he does not expect any further cooperation from the Saudis.
"I think that we got what we could get out of the Saudi Arabian government at this time," Raffanello said, though he added that it was not enough, given what he called the prince's key role in the plot.
"He is the key co-conspirator," Raffanello said. "He's the straw that stirs the drink. He made it happen. No plane, no dope. Dope stays in Colombia."
A Diplomatic Incident?
The prince, for his part, has declared his innocence in a Saudi newspaper, saying that he was bringing in plastic piping, not cocaine. The prince, however, has a prior drug charge, having been indicted in Mississippi on narcotics charges in 1984.
Authorities say the value of the smuggled cocaine was $36 million and that some of the drug money was moved through a Swiss bank in Geneva that was owned by the prince himself.
Police in France say that the Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, even threatened to cancel a $6 billion contract with a French company over the case. The details of the alleged threat were sent in a diplomatic cable from the French ambassador in Riyadh.
A former French narcotics officer, Fabrice Monti, said this case has become the center of a diplomatic incident. "The Saudi government acted as one to set up a protective barrier between the prince and French justice and threatened to not sign a very important and lucrative contract in the works for a very long time," he said.
Raffanello said that in all his years, he's never seen a case like this before. "We've been doing dope investigations for years. We don't do many princes," he said. "It was kind of a shocker."