Foreign defendants tied to drug trafficking cases in international waters are increasingly challenging U.S. prosecutors

 

achardy@elnuevoherald.com

After a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter disabled one of its outboard engines with gunfire, the Cristiano Ronaldo go-fast boat stopped cold in international waters off the Central American coast one day early last November.

Then the crewmen began throwing objects into the water, presumably cocaine bales they were allegedly carrying. In the end, U.S. authorities seized and destroyed the boat and transported the suspects to Miami for prosecution.

The location where the boat was seized and its subsequent destruction are now key elements at the core of a legal dispute between the defendants’ lawyers and U.S. prosecutors.

It is only the latest legal challenge by foreign defendants picked up at sea thousands of miles away from Miami to being prosecuted in the United States for alleged drug trafficking. The challenges are becoming more frequent because an increasing number of foreign drug trafficking suspects are being detained in international waters in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean who then are brought to Miami for trial. The arrests are the result of increased U.S. patrolling of international waters aimed at disrupting the routes of drug traffickers in Mexico and Colombia.

On Friday, for example, the Coast Guard said crews of the cutters Charles Sexton and Paul Clark teamed up in the first drug interdictions performed aboard the 154-foot fast response vessels, seizing an estimated 2,100 pounds of marijuana and 35 kilograms of cocaine worth a combined wholesale value of more than $3 million.

The crew of the Charles Sexton stopped a go-fast vessel in the Caribbean on the evening of May 3, with five people aboard. The Sexton's crew spotted the suspect vessel and launched their small boat crew to investigate. Upon seeing the Coast Guard crew, the suspects aboard the vessel jettisoned bales of contraband into the water and attempted to flee. The five suspects were detained and the Sexton crew recovered approximately 1,895 pounds of marijuana and 35 kilograms of cocaine.

A day earlier, a Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew located a similar go-fast vessel in the vicinity of the Bahamas. The crew of the Paul Clark launched its small boat crew, which was vectored to the suspect vessel's location by an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew. The suspects fled, and abandoned their vessel off the coast of Haiti. The Paul Clark crew arrived on scene and recovered approximately 220 pounds of marijuana from the vessel.

In the Cristiano Ronaldo case last November, defendants Saulo Arahon Hernández Almaraz, Samuel Savala Cisneros, Jose Luis Aguilar Lopez and Elden Nehemias Lopez Hernandez, have filed two recent motions in Miami federal court asking a judge to dismiss their case.

One motion called the arrest illegal because the law cited as the basis for their case has been declared unconstitutional by an appeals court for use in certain drug trafficking prosecutions. The motion also claimed that U.S. authorities could not conclusively prove the boat was in international waters. The second motion says the case cannot go forward because the Coast Guard destroyed the vessel and thus evidence no longer exists.

U.S. prosecutors, in a response document, asked the judge to reject the defendants’ motions.

They said the defendants’ claim that the law used to arrest them was unconstitutional did not apply to their case because they were stopped in international waters some 120 miles southwest of the Central American coast. The legal precedent they cited covered the seizure of a boat within Panamanian territorial waters.

Prosecutors also asked the judge to dismiss the defendants’ claim that the trial cannot go forward because the Coast Guard destroyed their boat. The U.S. motion argues that a team that boarded the Cristiano Ronaldo took enough photographs and video to sustain evidence.

The case involving the Cristiano Ronaldo, a boat named after a world famous Portuguese soccer player, began on Nov. 5 when a U.S. surveillance aircraft spotted the boat speeding in the Pacific Ocean approximately 120 miles southwest of the Guatemala-El Salvador coastal border area.

The Coast Guard cutter Rush, which was nearby, launched a patrol helicopter to get a closer look.

On arrival, helicopter crew members saw three boats, two of them speeding away. One of the vessels carried bales that helicopter crew members recognized as narcotics loads they had seen previously, according to a criminal complaint in Miami federal court.

Thus the helicopter crew decided to focus its attention on that vessel, later identified as the Cristiano Ronaldo.

The captain of the Cristiano Ronaldo ignored the signals from the helicopter crew to stop.

A helicopter crew member then fired warning shots across the bow of the Cristiano Ronaldo, which still did not stop.

At that point, the crew member fired a round into one of the boat’s engines, which made it lose power. As it idled, boat crew members jettisoned the bales into the water. After disposing of the bales, the boat started up again and tried to speed away, but the armed crew member fired again hitting the second engine. That disabled the boat completely.

The Rush the dispatched a small boat to board the Cristiano Ronaldo and recover the jettisoned bales.

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