U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard has sentenced three foreign crew members arrested on cocaine-trafficking charges after a U.S. Navy warship intercepted their small fishing boat in January hundreds of miles south of Guatemala in the Pacific Ocean.
Between July 31 and Aug. 27, Lenard sentenced José Esperansa Ramírez, Joel Leyva Alvarado and Victor Medranda Reyes to varying prison terms. The two Mexicans — Leyva and Esperansa — and Medranda, of Ecuador, are likely to be deported upon completion of their sentences.
Esperansa, who acted as the boat captain, was sentenced to 60 months in the penitentiary; Leyva also was sentenced to 60 months in prison; and Medranda to 57 months.
The case drew media attention because the defendants initially filed motions asking Judge Lenard to dismiss the charges on the grounds that their arrest in the high seas had been illegal.
The motion alleged that the arrest was illegal under international law because drug trafficking is not a crime that can be prosecuted under so-called universal jurisdiction.
Under this international law principle, six crimes fall under its umbrella: genocide, crimes against humanity. Extrajudicial executions, war crimes, torture and forced disappearances.
Judge Lenard rejected the motion, saying that the U.S. case was properly filed and thus was legitimate — mainly because there was precedent for such actions.
Over the last five to six years, the interception of foreign boats in the Atlantic, Caribbean and eastern Pacific has increased, leading to more arrests of foreign nationals aboard those vessels.
For example, the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa on Aug. 10 intercepted in the Caribbean the 226-foot Panamanian freighter Memory carrying 970 kilograms of cocaine valued at $32.4 million.
After the seizure, the Coast Guard turned in 11 suspects detained on the freighter to law enforcement officials in Miami. The case is likely to appear on Miami federal court dockets in a few days.
Meanwhile, the case involving the three men — Esperansa, Leyva and Medranda — began Jan. 20 when a U.S. patrol aircraft saw three fishing vessels exchanging items at a point south of Guatemala in international waters of the eastern Pacific, according to a criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court.
Then, the complaint says, two of the fishing boats began heading north with tarpaulins on the decks and multiple fuel drums on board.
Shortly after, the U.S. Navy warship RENTZ deployed a helicopter to follow the two fishing boats. The crewmen of one of the vessels were observed throwing objects into the water as the helicopter hovered above.
The second boat apparently escaped, but the one whose crewmen jettisoned objects were detained by a boarding party from the RENTZ.
The three men were then flown to Miami for prosecution.
Though the three men originally pleaded not guilty, they changed their minds after Judge Lenard rejected the illegal-arrest motion.
The three met in the high seas when a boat carrying Medranda and the boat piloted by Esperansa rendezvoused at a point in the Pacific south of the Mexico-Guatemala border. Esperansa had begun his fateful voyage after boarding a vessel near the Galapagos Islands, according to federal investigators.