Crew from boat with drugs intercepted in the Pacific face trial in Miami

Officials from the US Coast Guard base in Miami Beach, in September 2014, unload bales of cocaine that were seized in two operations in the Caribbean and off the coast of Panama.
Officials from the US Coast Guard base in Miami Beach, in September 2014, unload bales of cocaine that were seized in two operations in the Caribbean and off the coast of Panama. el Nuevo Herald

While on patrol in the Pacific Ocean, crew members aboard a U.S. aircraft observed a go-fast boat about 170 miles south of the Guatemala-El Salvador border.

The crew members quickly concluded that the boat likely was transporting drugs and radioed the nearby Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf for assistance. The Bertholf launched a helicopter whose crew eventually stopped the go-fast by disabling its engine with gunfire.

Shortly after, other Bertholf crew members boarded the go-fast and arrested the three men who were traveling on it as drug-trafficking suspects. They are now in Miami awaiting trial.

The April 11 incident is the latest in a long series of similar episodes over the last few years in which Coast Guard cutters or U.S. Navy ships have intercepted boats carrying narcotics from South America both in the eastern Pacific and the Atlantic.

In many of these cases, defendants arrested on the intercepted boats are brought to Miami for trial. Dozens of suspects have been tried and convicted on drug-trafficking charges stemming from those interceptions.

Some of these cases can be traced back to the so-called Operation Martillo program under which patrolling U.S. and allied warships seek to disrupt drug-traffickers’ sea routes.

A notice on the U.S. Southern Command website says that as of March 2015, Operation Martillo has resulted in the seizure of more than 400 metric tons of cocaine over the last four years. According to the advisory, this represents about $8 billion in potential revenue denied to drug traffickers.

As crew members on the go-fast, called Regalo de Dios or God’s Gift, sighted the helicopter above them, they began jettisoning objects into the water. The criminal complaint in the case says the objects thrown overboard were “consistent in size and shape with bales of narcotics.”

Once the boat’s engine was disabled, the Bertholf dispatched a boarding party in a small boat. The crew boarded the Regalo de Dios after the U.S. government established that the vessel was without nationality and therefore subject to American jurisdiction.

When Coast Guard crew members questioned the go-fast crewmen, one of them identified himself as Luis Enrique Cedeño Delgado, the captain. Cedeño said he was from Ecuador. A passenger, Sixto Angel Marín Quijije, said he was also from Ecuador while the third person, Carlos Alberto Landazuri said he was from Colombia.

The criminal complaint, filed by a special agent of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), did not explain how the Colombian and the Ecuadorans came to be on the Regalo de Dios.

But in some previous cases involving vessels intercepted in the eastern Pacific, the crew members have begun their journey from western coasts of Colombia or Ecuador. Then they turn north toward and rendezvous with another boat south of the Central American and Mexican coasts. There crews transfer the drugs to the second boat which transports them to a final destination.

In the Regalo de Dios case, Coast Guard personnel recovered 10 of the jettisoned bales, which contained about 549 kilos of cocaine, according to the HSI criminal complaint.

An HIS spokesman said he couldn’t comment beause the case is still ongoing. The defendants’ lawyers could not be reached for comment.

The three have been indicted and trial tentatively has been scheduled for June.

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