Three Foreign Nationals Face up to Life Imprisonment for Drug Smuggling on the High Seas
HOUSTON – The final defendant in a maritime smuggling venture involving nearly 1300 kilograms of cocaine has pleaded guilty, announced U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick.
Herman Julio Cuenu Valencia, a 34-year-old Columbian national pleaded guilty today, while Ricardo Alberto Parraga Mendoza, a 31-year-old Ecuadoran national, and Jose Luis Landazuri Valdes, a 24-year-old Colombian national, entered their pleas in November. .
On July 3, 2018, while on routine patrol off the Pacific Coast of Colombia and Ecuador, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Cutter Mohawk detected a 47-foot low profile go-fast boat 300 nautical miles northeast of the Galapagos Islands. USCG launched its small boat which approached and stopped the vessel. Officers boarded the boat and discovered three crewmen on board.
The vessel had no flag, no registration documents, no homeport name and no indicia of identification on the hull of the vessel. Parraga Mendoza identified himself as the captain of the boat.
Officers discovered 38 bales of cocaine weighing approximately 1,280 kilograms in the hold of the boat and five sophisticated satellite communication and global positioning devices.
The three crewmen were taken into custody and transported to Florida.
They were charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine on a vessel in the high seas in violation of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act and the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008. This is the first such prosecution in the Southern District of Texas following a change in the law allowing any jurisdiction in the United States to prosecute such smugglers. The law gives the United States jurisdiction over vessels without nationality found on the high seas with contraband as Congress found that “trafficking in controlled substances aboard vessels is a serious international problem and is universally condemned… Such trafficking presents a specific threat to the security and societal well-being of the United States.”
All three defendants remain in custody pending their sentencing hearings. set for April 26, 2019, before U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein. At that time, each defendant faces a minimum of 10 years and up to life in federal prison and a possible $10 million fine.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and USCG conducted the investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Edward Gallagher and Jimmy Leo are prosecuting the case.