Crime

Six South American men interdicted at sea await trial in Miami on drug trafficking charges

Coast Guard Cutter Stratton crew offloads 34 metric tons of cocaine in San Diego on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. The drugs were seized in 23 separate interdictions by Coast Guard cutters and Coast Guard law enforcement teams operating in known drug transiting zones.
Coast Guard Cutter Stratton crew offloads 34 metric tons of cocaine in San Diego on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. The drugs were seized in 23 separate interdictions by Coast Guard cutters and Coast Guard law enforcement teams operating in known drug transiting zones. U.S. Coast Guard District 11 PADET San Diego

Six South American men — four Ecuadorans and two Colombians — are awaiting trial in Miami federal court after being detained on boats interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard in the eastern Pacific Ocean on suspicion of transporting cocaine.

Colombians Aureliano Banguera Alegría and Miyer Atanael Quiñones Angulo, and Ecuadorans Juan Carlos Cheme Montano, Luis Antonio Valencia Chasing, Jefferson Arroyo Borja and Marlón Fabián Quiñonez Benitez have pleaded or plan to plead not guilty pending trial, according to federal court records and people familiar with the case.

The defendants are the latest group of foreign nationals suspected of drug-trafficking to be prosecuted in Miami after having been detained in distant spots in the high seas. For the last several years, groups of foreign nationals — mostly South or Central Americans — have been flown to South Florida for prosecution on drug-trafficking charges after having been detained while piloting or traveling in boats in the Pacific, Atlantic and Caribbean.

These arrests have increased gradually as U.S. vessels step up patrolling of suspected drug-traffickers’ maritime routes.

Some of the defendants have challenged their detention in motions as illegal, but so far judges have ruled against them in South Florida.

Though the six defendants in the latest cases were detained in two separate interdiction operations, the circumstances of each detention were somewhat similar. The cases suggest that drug-traffickers employ similar tactics to ship narcotics by sea. The crew members are generally Colombian and Ecuadoran travelling on go-fast boats that began their journeys on either the Colombian or Ecuadoran coasts and then rendezvoused at sea to transfer bales containing cocaine or marijuana.

The first of the two latest cases began on June 28 when a U.S. government patrol aircraft spotted a go-fast boat traveling in international waters 157 miles south of the Guatemala/El Salvador border, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court by a special agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Stratton, patrolling in the area, launched a helicopter and a smaller boat to get a closer look, according to the complaint.

When the Coast Guard boat pulled alongside the go-fast its crew noticed that on one side it said its homeport was Manta in Ecuador — but when Ecuadoran authorities were contacted they could not confirm jurisdiction over the vessel, according to the complaint.

As a result, the Coast Guard crew boarded the go-fast, searched it and questioned the three men aboard: Banguera, Cheme and Valencia. The complaint said nine bales found aboard contained about 495 kilos of cocaine.

On July 20, the complaint says, the men were taken to Panama where they put on a plane bound for Fort Lauderdale when DEA agents arrested them.

This is one of the first court records in a high-seas drug-trafficking case to reveal how foreign nationals detained on their boats are transported to South Florida.

Prior criminal complaints simply stated that the detainees were arrested on arrival in South Florida but did not say how they were brought here or from where.

The second interdiction occurred on July 13when the Stratton detected a go-fast boat some 160 miles south of the Guatemalan coast.

When the Stratton launched a small boat to give chase, the go-fast stopped. A boarding party found 13 bales containing 680 kilos of cocaine, according to a DEA criminal complaint.

Then the boarding party detained the three men on board: Angulo, Benitez and Borja.

Juan de Jesús González, the attorney who represents Quiñónez Benítez, said his client is innocent.

“This guy has never been outside Ecuador,” said González. “He’s an extremely poor laborer who ends up on a boat with two other gentlemen.”

Glenn Bruce Kritzer, attorney for Quiñones Angulo, said the government’s evidence is questionable.

“This is another case in which the government of the United States is overreaching, stopping a boat that clearly was headed from one point in Central America to another point in Central America and was not headed to the U.S.”

Follow Alfonso Chardy on Twitter @AlfonsoChardy

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