U.S. Coast Guard, Caribbean Border Interagency Group Authorities Seize $37 Million Worth Of Cocaine In The Caribbean Sea
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Puerto Rico Police seized nearly 1,280 kilograms of cocaine, with an estimated whole sale value of $37 million, and apprehended two Dominican Republic nationals during an at-sea interdiction in the Caribbean Sea Wednesday, announced United States Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez. U.S. Magistrate Judge Camille L. Vélez-Rivé authorized a complaint charging Santos Lantigua-Nuñez and Efrain Cedano-Díaz with conspiracy to possess a controlled substance on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.
The interdiction is the result of the Caribbean Border Interagency Group's Operation Caribbean Guard and the Coast Guard’s Operation Unified Resolve.
During a routine Caribbean patrol, the crew of a Coast Guard HC-144 Ocean Sentry Maritime Patrol Aircraft from Air Station Miami detected a 35-foot go-fast vessel with two outboard engines traveling northbound without any navigation lights, south of Puerto Rico Tuesday night.
Coast Guard Sector San Juan watchstanders diverted the Coast Guard Cutters Drummond and Farallon and launched an armed Coast Guard helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen to interdict the suspect vessel. Customs and Border Protection Caribbean Air and Marine Branch and the Puerto Rico Police Joint Forces of Rapid action were also notified and launched marine units to interdict the suspect vessel.
The Coast Guard HC-144 maintained near-constant surveillance of the go-fast vessel as the armed Coast Guard helicopter arrived on scene and fired warning shots in an attempt to get the suspects to stop. When the vessel did not comply, the helicopter crew fired at and disabled one of the vessel’s engines, prompting the suspected smugglers to jettison the contraband overboardA Customs and Border Protection marine unit along with marine units from Puerto Rico Police then intercepted the vessel, and a law enforcement team from the Coast Guard Cutter Drummond embarked the suspects.
Law enforcement personnel including crewmembers onboard the Coast Guard Cutters Drummond and Farallon were able to retrieve 45 bales of contraband jettisoned by the smugglers. Narcotics Identification Field Tests conducted by the law enforcement revealed positive results for the presence of cocaine.
“Our multiagency partnerships in the region along with the continuous augmentation of Coast Guard air and surface assets sent to Puerto Rico to interdict major drug shipments at sea continues to pay off,” said Capt. Drew W. Pearson, Commander, Coast Guard Sector San Juan. “The airborne use of force expertly applied by the Coast Guard helicopter crew to stop this vessel should serve as a serious deterrent to smugglers to know they will be caught and brought to justice.”
“These arrests are a clear indication of the continued success of the Caribbean Corridor Strike Force” said Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico. “This is just another example of the fine work our State and Federal law enforcement partners accomplish every day. With the continued collaboration and assistance of our law enforcement partners, we will continue our efforts to bring drug smuggling organizations to justice.”
“CBP air and marine assets continuously patrol the coastal borders of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to leverage the collective efforts of all federal and state law enforcement partners to intercept any smuggling venture,” stated Johnny Morales, Director of CBP Air Operations.
“Once again the combined efforts of DEA, USCG, CPB and PRPD-FURA resulted in the seizure of millions of dollars’ worth of narcotics. Our message continues to be the same: we will detect and interdict drug smugglers attempting to flood our island with their poisonous cargo,” said Vito Salvatore Guarino, Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Caribbean Division.
During interviews with the suspects, it was discovered the third person jumped overboard to avoid apprehension as law enforcement units approached the disabled vessel. The Coast Guard conducted a large scale search for the missing person that lasted 34 hours and covered 546 square miles before suspending search efforts for the missing smuggler Thursday night. While searching for the missing person Coast Guard active duty and Auxiliary crews located and subsequently recovered 45 bales of contraband from the water, which later tested positive for cocaine.
The two apprehended smugglers, the seized cocaine, and the suspect’s vessel were transferred in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to Customs and Border Protection officers and Drug Enforcement Agency agents for processing and prosecution.
The Coast Guard Cutters Farallon and Drummond are 110-foot patrol boats homeported in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The case is being prosecuted by Special Assistant United States Attorney Kelley Tiffany.
The defendants are facing terms of imprisonment from 10 years to life for the narcotics violations. Criminal complaints are only charges and not evidence of guilt. A defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty.
The Coast Guard's efforts under Operation Unified Resolve contribute to the interagency results being achieved each and every day locally under Operation Caribbean Guard, which coordinates efforts between the Coast Guard, its DHS, Commonwealth and Territorial law enforcement partners, who are working diligently to deter, detect and disrupt illicit maritime trafficking to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Since June 2012, the Coast Guard and its interagency partners supporting Caribbean Guard and Unified Resolve have seized more than $1 billion in illicit narcotics and detained nearly 90 suspected smugglers.