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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of California

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, July 19, 2018

Five Crew Members Sentenced for Smuggling 1,205 Pounds of Cocaine on the High Seas; Captain of Low-Profile Vessel Sentenced to 210 months

Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Ari Fitzwater (619) 546-8756, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Gibbons (619) 546-8419, Assistant U.S. Attorney Connie Wu

NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – July 19, 2018

SAN DIEGO – Five crew members were sentenced in federal court this week for smuggling 1,205 pounds of cocaine across the ocean in low-profile vessels, including a captain who received a 17-year term.

Two of the defendants had previously been convicted of similar crimes in the Middle District of Florida. United States District Judge Roger T. Benitez sentenced the defendants to spend between 84-210 months in prison. 

On September 17, 2017, captain Jorge Ortiz-Salazar and crewmembers Elpidio Enriquez and Laureano Benitez-Montano were spotted traveling in the Eastern Pacific Ocean aboard a low-profile vessel loaded with cocaine. Meanwhile, another boat captain, defendant Luis Alberto Corado-Polanco, and crew member Juan Jose Valiente-Tomes, were traveling in a go-fast vessel intending to rendezvous with the other crew onboard the low-profile vessel. United States Coast Guard Cutter JAMES launched a helicopter to intercept the defendants’ vessels.

When the Coast Guard helicopter intercepted the low profile vessel, Ortiz-Salazar abandoned it by jumping onto Corado-Polanco’s go-fast vessel. Corado-Polanco then attempted to outrun the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard helicopter issued orders to stop, and then issued warning shots, both of which were ignored. Ultimately the go-fast vessel was stopped when the Coast Guard fired disabling shots at its engines. The Coast Guard later recovered approximately 1,205 pounds of cocaine from the low profile vessel. 

Three defendants are Colombian nationals and two defendants are Guatemalan nationals. Three defendants admitted to conspiring to distribute the cocaine.  Of those three defendants, Laureano Benitez-Montano was sentenced to 84 months in custody; Luis Alberto Corado-Polanco was sentenced to 96 months in custody; and Juan Jose Valiente-Tomes was sentenced to 84 months in custody. The Court found that Corado-Polanco, as captain of the go-fast vessel, created a potentially dangerous situation by fleeing from law enforcement. The other two defendants admitted to possession with intent to distribute the cocaine while onboard a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.  Of those defendants, Elpidio Enriquez was sentenced to 180 months in custody and Jorge Ortiz-Salazar was sentenced to 210 months in custody. 

“As we see more and more smugglers taking to the ocean, hoping to go undetected in the vast territory of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, we have redoubled our efforts and committed more resources to this problem,” said U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman. “We are at the forefront of our nation’s war against drugs and will continue to work together with our law enforcement partners at the Coast Guard and the DEA to dismantle violent and dangerous transnational organized crime networks that are using the high seas as a Narco expressway.”

“The Coast Guard’s mission of interdicting drug smugglers in the Eastern Pacific Ocean is extraordinarily challenging, but it is essential to protect our nation from the international flow of illegal drugs and the transnational organized criminals that thrive from the drug trade,” said Rear Adm. Peter Gautier, Commander of the 11th Coast Guard District.  “The Coast Guard will be steadfast in our role to dismantle transnational drug trafficking networks by intercepting their vessels, seizing their drugs and bringing the traffickers to court to answer for their crimes.”

“These men were brazen in fleeing from the U.S. Coast Guard, but today they were acquainted with Lady Justice,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Karen Flowers. “As she stands in judgement, let those who threaten our nation be reminded that when law enforcement joins forces, they face no greater enemy.”

This case is the result of the ongoing efforts by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), a partnership that brings together the combined expertise and unique abilities of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt, dismantle and prosecute high-level members of drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and money laundering organizations and enterprises.

DEFENDANTS                                                       

Case Number 17cr3293                                           

Elpidio Enriquez                                                         Age: 62                                               Colombia

Laureano Benitez-Montano                                        Age: 43                                               Colombia

Case Number 17cr3328                                           

Luis Alberto Corado-Polanco                                     Age: 39                                               Guatemala

Juan Jose Valiente-Tomes                                           Age: 49                                               Guatemala

Jorge Ortiz-Salazar                                                    Age: 42                                               Colombia

SUMMARY OF CHARGES

Possession with Intent to Distribute Cocaine Onboard a Vessel Subject to the Jurisdiction of the United States – Title 46, U.S.C., Section 70503

Maximum Penalty: Life in prison and $10,000,000 fine

Conspiracy to Distribute Cocaine Intended for Unlawful Importation – Title 21, U.S.C., Sections 959, 960, and 963

Maximum penalty: Life in prison and $10,000,000 fine

AGENCY

Drug Enforcement Administration

United States Coast Guard

 

Topic(s): 
Drug Trafficking
Press Release Number: 
CAS18-0719-Ortiz
Updated July 19, 2018