Key Cocaine Routes Closed, Feds Say
Key Cocaine Routes Closed, Feds Say
WASHINGTON - Taking on high-tech drug-trafficking operations that mimic the structure and sophistication of Fortune 500 companies, federal agents say they have cut the flow of cocaine into the United States by 10 percent by choking off key smuggling routes in the Caribbean.
On Wednesday, the U.S. government announced the indictment of more than 50 people in Miami federal court on charges that they shipped cocaine from Colombia through Caribbean countries and into South Florida.
The indictments culminated a five-year investigation that had already resulted in more than 330 arrests and the seizure of 26,000 kilos of cocaine and $85 million in laundered money.
The smugglers moved the drugs from Jamaica, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic in all manner of vessels, from high-powered go-fast boats to modest fishing crafts, officials said.
They avoided Biscayne Bay and the Miami River in favor of less conspicuous marinas in Broward and Palm Beach counties where they mingled with other recreational boaters so they could slip by unnoticed.
Among the most notorious names in the indictments was one of the U.S. government's most-wanted cocaine suppliers, Colombian Elías Cobos-Muñoz. He was arrested Monday in Colombia and faces extradition.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who announced the indictments, praised the unprecedented ''united effort to close the Caribbean corridor to drugs'' by various federal agencies and the governments of Colombia, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Panama and Canada.
Until their cooperation, an estimated 94 tons of cocaine flowed from Colombia through the Caribbean every year, he said. The massive undercover operations cut that amount by a third, he said, and the total cocaine coming into the United States from all routes by 10 percent.
''Our ultimate goal is to see the flow of drugs to this country dwindle,'' Ashcroft said, singling out the success of two investigations, Operation Busted Manatee and Operation Double Talk, that resulted in Wednesday's indictments.
The operations, led by the Drug Enforcement Administration, signal a renewed campaign to target a more sophisticated Colombian network of narcotics partnerships in the Caribbean -- in addition to focusing on even greater drug-smuggling activities in Mexico and along the border states of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California.
''We have had one hell of an impact on the trafficking in the Caribbean,'' Thomas Raffanello, special agent in charge of the DEA's Miami field office, said in an interview.
Since 1999, federal agents have arrested more than 330 suppliers, traffickers, transporters, distributors and money launderers through eight undercover operations in the DEA's ``Caribbean Initiative.''
About 50 suspects were arrested this week in the final two operations.
Among them: Nestor Plata of Pembroke Pines, arrested Wednesday on money-laundering charges. He is set to make his first appearance in Miami federal court today.
Another target already in U.S. custody is Jean Eliobert Jasme, a major Haitian drug-trafficker who was expelled from Haiti last year and now faces charges in Miami.
U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez said Jasme was among the first Haitian drug arrests, leading to similar charges against five former government and police officials since the ouster of Haiti's president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February.
Federal agents said the entities bringing cocaine to the United States are not like the old Colombian cartels of the '70s and '80s. Instead, they are structured like Fortune 500 companies with transporters and distributors sharing risks and investments with the biggest Colombian suppliers.
They also use the most sophisticated communications technology to evade agents in the Caribbean.
DEA Administrator Karen Tandy, who referred to them as ''modern pirates,'' said Cobos-Muñoz's capture in Colombia, along with the arrest of four other most-wanted cocaine suppliers and smugglers during the past year, was critical to the crackdown in the Caribbean.
But one defendant who won't be appearing in U.S. courts anytime soon is Rafael Bustamante, whose name was phonetically used by the DEA's Miami field office for Operation Busted Manatee.
Bustamante, a Colombian, was based in Jamaica and in charge of transporting cocaine, agents said. He tried to hide in Cuba when he realized the DEA was coming after him.
Agents said they alerted Cuban officials, who tracked down Bustamante, convicted him on drug-related charges and sentenced him to life in prison. The U.S. government wants Cuba to send Bustamante to America to face federal smuggling charges.