Submarine Used To Transport Cocaine

    By ELAINE SILVESTRINI The Tampa Tribune

    Published: Jul 19, 2006

    TAMPA - Smugglers have used airplanes, fishing boats and trucks to get cocaine from Colombia to the United States.

    They have hidden the drugs in compartments on freighters and shuttled them to shore on go-fast boats.

    They have taken circuitous routes to avoid detection by law enforcement, chugging south before heading north, zigging before they zagged. When cornered, they've set their ships on fire and tossed tons of cocaine into the sea.

    The agents of "Operation Panama Express," a long-term, Tampa-based, international drug investigation, have seen a lot.

    But until now, no American investigators have caught smugglers using an unmanned submarine.

    Authorities announced Tuesday that eight Colombian fishermen have pleaded guilty to federal charges of cocaine possession with intent to distribute. The men were arrested in August onboard the fishing vessel Rio Mar I, 90 nautical miles southwest of the Galapagos Islands.

    Days before the interdiction, members of the U.S. Coast Guard onboard the naval ship saw the fishing boat trailing a cable from the stern, appearing to be pulling something. The boat was plying waters known for drug trafficking.

    The fishing vessel was interdicted Aug. 19. The wire-towing harness guardsmen had seen and photographed was nowhere to be found, according to court filings.

    The day after stopping the boat, guardsmen found a 31-foot-long, submersible vessel about 15 miles away from where the Rio Mar had been boarded. The steel sub was about 4 feet in diameter, contained 5,500 pounds of cocaine and was attached to a 350-foot cable, according to court papers. It had an electronic transmitter in its nose cone.

    Investigators took 300 photographs of the vessel and videotaped its interior. Wanting to bring the fishing boat and sub to port, the Coast Guard tried to lift it from the water. The guardsmen tried using the Jarrett's davit, or crane, but had no luck. They tried lifting the sub using the naval vessel's helicopter, but the sub was too heavy.

    The Jarrett was low on fuel, and the commanding officer determined that the ship didn't have the proper equipment to tow either the sub or the fishing boat, which was taking on water. Because of Hurricane Katrina, no other vessels could help. Officials decided that the smugglers' vessels were a danger to navigation.

    On Aug. 24, guardsmen sunk the vessels.

    Defense attorneys argued unsuccessfully in court papers that the charges should be dismissed because the government had destroyed evidence. But U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore ruled that the government had not acted in bad faith and denied the defense motions.

    Some defendants argued in court papers that they were unwitting fishermen, unaware that they were involved in cocaine smuggling. The prosecution filed notice with the court that it intended to present evidence that six of the eight had been involved in smuggling before.

    One of the men, Virgilio Caicedo, 45, served four years in a Panamanian jail, according to the prosecution filing. Another, Benito Murillo-Cuero, 36, was aboard the fishing vessel Codemaco II, which was seized by the government of Colombia on March 4, 2004, carrying 1,130 kilograms of cocaine and 13 kilograms of heroin. He was free on bail and required to cooperate with Colombian authorities at the time of this arrest.

    The Rio Mar captain, Sergio Portocarreno-Reina, was a crewman between 2000 and 2004 aboard three vessels involved in cocaine smuggling, the prosecution filing says.

    In addition, prosecutors said in court papers that Portocarreno-Reina made incriminating statements in jail while he was awaiting trial. Among other things, he was quoted as saying that when a helicopter flew over the fishing vessel and the crew saw a contact on the radar coming toward them, they let loose the cable that was towing the submarine.

    Also pleading guilty Monday were Ulpiano Mina, 52, Tefilo Renteria-Bravo, 40, Leonardo Anchico-Jimenez, 27, Jose Carlos Belalcazar-Vallecilla, 41, and Richar Vallecilla-Velez, 28.

    If convicted, they all face from 10 years to life in prison.


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