During a sunny morning in late April, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter docked in Miami Beach and unloaded 2,200 pounds of cocaine worth $27 million tightly wrapped in plastic bags.
While authorities that day provided some information about where and how the cocaine was seized, somewhere off the Panama coast after a suspicious boat was interdicted, the full story did not emerge until last week.
The three men on board — Beat Jegge of Switzerland and Daniel Velazquez and Julio Claro Alvarez of Colombia — appeared in federal court last week where they pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
According to the criminal complaint, the cocaine run began near Cartagena on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia and proceeded northwest toward Panama where the Coast Guard interrupted the journey.
The Manatee, a 65-foot fishing boat based in Pensacola, began its ill-starred voyage on the afternoon of April 17 when it departed from Cartagena with Jegge as skipper and Alvarez as a crew member, according to the criminal complaint prepared by an FBI agent.
“At approximately 10 p.m., the Manatee rendezvoused with several vessels, where the narcotics were loaded onto the Manatee,” according to the complaint. “During the transfer of the narcotics, Velazquez boarded the Manatee, along with several bales of cocaine.”
The white-hulled Manatee, flying U.S. and Colombian flags, then turned north and began heading toward a point off Panama’s Atlantic coast where the vessel was to meet up with a go-fast boat to transfer the cocaine, the criminal complaint says.
It notes that the Manatee missed the rendezvous with the go-fast because the Coast Guard showed up.
“While on a routine patrol in the Caribbean Sea, the United States Coast Guard cutter Gallatin sighted an approximately 65-foot fishing vessel approximately 115 nautical miles northeast of Colon, Panama, in international waters and upon the high seas,” the complaint says.
A Coast Guard search party found the cocaine onboard.
The three found on the boat were taken to the Gallatin and eventually transferred to the cutter Webber.
On April 26, the Webber reached Miami Beach and delivered the detainees to federal agents and the cocaine to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
That same day the Coast Guard called the media so camera crews could record the unloading the cocaine.
Jegge’s attorney could not be reached for comment, but the other two denied that their clients were involved in drug-trafficking.
Jonathan Brett Kasen, Alvarez’s attorney, said his client was not guilty of drug smuggling because he was not initially aware of the purpose of the trip. “My guy was a low man on the totem pole,” said Kasen. He has no criminal history, is unsophisticated and has a rudimentary knowledge of reading and writing. He is a day laborer in Colombia and was brought on board the boat to do some cleaning. Once aboard the vessel he was stuck.”
Alfredo Izaguirre, who represents Velazquez, echoed Kasen’s comments. “My client was a low-level guy,” he said. “He was like many there who are pawns and scapegoats who don’t really know what’s going on.”
Jegge told investigators that he agreed to the trip in exchange for a $2,000 advance plus $330,000 upon completion of the trip, the complaint says.
Alvarez told agents he was paid $2,500 in advance and promised $5,000, but only to take a vessel to Panama to “pick up backpackers,” the complaint said.
The three defendants face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted at trial.