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Press Release

Mexican National Sentenced To Over 20 Years In Prison For Setting Fire To Drug Smuggling Vessel During U.S. Coast Guard Interdiction

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Middle District of Florida

Tampa, FL – U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven has sentenced Jesus Soto-Martinez (41, Michoacan, Mexico) to 21 years and 3 months in federal prison for conspiring to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine while onboard a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, forcibly interfering with a lawful boarding, and knowingly using fire to commit a felony offense.

Soto-Martinez had pleaded guilty on November 20, 2019.

According to court documents, on February 19, 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Cutter STEADFAST interdicted a go-fast vessel (GFV) carrying Soto-Martinez and his co-conspirators in international waters about 378 nautical miles south of Acapulco, Mexico. The defendants were carrying approximately 2,000 kilograms of cocaine on the GFV. During the pursuit of the vessel, Jose Varges-Merida, a co-defendant, refused to comply with the USCG commands to stop and steered the GFV in the direction of the USCG vessel carrying its law enforcement detachment, causing the USCG vessel to significantly alter course and momentarily become unstable. The coxswain was forced to make evasive maneuvers to avoid the GFV from running over the USCG vessel and its crewmen. The USCG was then able to stop the GFV by using several rounds of disabling fire.

During the boarding of the GFV, Soto-Martinez intentionally started a fire onboard the GFV by lighting one of the fuel barrels on fire. After jumping off the GFV, Soto-Martinez clung to the side of the GFV and lifted up the tarp covering the cocaine bales, seemingly in an effort to ensure the nearby fire spread to the load of drugs. Almost immediately, the fire spread out of control and eventually engulfed the entire vessel. It took 90 minutes to extinguish. The majority of the GFV was burned to the waterline and the vast majority of cocaine was burned to an unsalvageable extent.

“I am extremely grateful to our U.S. Attorney partners for helping us complete the cycle of justice,” said Rear Admiral Brian Penoyer, the 11th Coast Guard District commander.  “This case demonstrates the lengths smugglers are willing to go to avoid getting caught and the dangers Coast Guard men and women face as we continue to keep these drugs off the streets and out of our homes.”

This case was investigated by the Panama Express Strike Force, an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) comprised of agents and analysts from the United States Coast Guard Investigative Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and U.S. Southern Command's Joint Interagency Task Force South. The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the most serious drug trafficking and money laundering organizations and those primarily responsible for the nation’s drug supply. The case was prosecuted Assistant United States Attorney Dan Baeza.

Updated September 29, 2020

Drug Trafficking