BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Former Colombian veterinarian Andres Lopez Elorez pleaded guilty Friday for his role in a drug ring that smuggled heroin into the United States using various methods, including inside balloons sewn into the stomachs of dogs.
“I conspired together with an experienced veterinarian to introduce drugs into the United States of America through surgical implantation in dogs,” Elorez told the court through an interpreter late Friday afternoon.
Federal prosecutors first brought the charges against 10 defendants in 2005. Elorez and his co-conspirators moved the drugs into the U.S. using both human and animal mules, prosecutors said.
The veterinarian used his skills to surgically insert packets of liquid heroin into the animals’ bellies, the U.S. Attorney’s office said in May. When the dogs arrived in the United States, the drug was “surgically removed.” It’s not clear how many animals died in the process.
Elorez, who is charged with two counts of conspiracy to import a controlled substance into the United States between September 2004 and January 2005, did not appear in U.S. court until May of this year. Spanish authorities arrested him in 2015 and he was finally extradited this past April.
He initially pleaded not guilty to both counts. Friday’s guilty plea involved a single count.
“As alleged in the indictment, Elorez is not only a drug trafficker, he also betrayed a veterinarian’s pledge to prevent animal suffering when he used his surgical skills in a cruel scheme to smuggle heroin in the abdomens of puppies,” said U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard Donoghue in a statement when Elorez was extradited.
“Dogs are man’s best friend and, as the defendant is about to learn, we are drug dealers’ worst enemy.” The office did not release a new statement Friday.
Prosecutors reported in June that plea negotiations were “active,” according to court documents.
Elorez’s attorney Mitchell Dinnerstein did not comment outside the courtroom afterward. He asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Levy to recommend deporting Elorez to Spain instead of Colombia, since Elorez has lived there for over a decade and has a wife there.
Elorez faces 10 years to life in prison. His sentencing is scheduled to take place before U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson on Jan. 17, 2019.