By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two former U.S. soldiers have been extradited to New York from Thailand to face charges of plotting to murder a U.S. federal drug agent and informant as part of an international drug smuggling operation, authorities said.
Joseph Manuel Hunter, 48, nicknamed "Rambo," is charged with recruiting a team of former military snipers, including an ex-U.S. Army sergeant and several former soldiers from other countries, to commit the murders on behalf of two Colombian drug cartel leaders.
The two cartel leaders were in fact Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informants.
Hunter and Timothy Vamvakias, both former U.S. Army sergeants, and several other suspects were arrested in Thailand on Thursday and flown to New York to face charges that include murder and drug conspiracy, as well as weapons possession.
"The bone-chilling allegations in today's indictment read like they were ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a statement. "The charges tell a tale of an international band of mercenary marksmen who enlisted their elite military training to serve as hired guns for evil ends."
The informants posing as cartel leaders, agreed to pay Hunter and two others $700,000 for the two killings, as well as an additional $100,000 to Hunter "for his leadership role," according to an indictment filed in New York.
Hunter and his alleged accomplices - who include Vamvakias, Dennis Gogel and Michael Filter of Germany, and Slawomir Soborski of Poland - were arrested in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting on the resort island of Phuket, off the southwestern coast of Thailand.
The indictment charges that Hunter and his team acted as security for cocaine shipments originating in Asia and bound for the U.S.
In late 2012, according to the indictment, Hunter "collected resumes via email for prospective members of the security team."
Earlier this year, Hunter and his team allegedly traveled to an unnamed Asian country to discuss the drug trafficking security work with the informants who were posing as Colombian cartel members.
Hunter, Vamvakias and Gogel are alleged to have discussed committing contract killings for the cartel.
Hunter told the informants that "he himself had previously done 'bonus jobs'" - code for contract killings, and that his team "wanted to do as much 'bonus work' as possible," according to the indictment.
The trio were "willing and eager to take cold hard cash to commit the cold-blooded murders of a DEA agent and an informant," Bharara said.
"Thanks to the determined, skillful and intrepid efforts of the DEA's Special Operations Division, an international hit team has been neutralized by agents working on four continents."
(Reporting by Chris Francescani; Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)