Local February 10, 2015 | 3:28 pm

US agents nab US$29M of cocaine on Dominican Republic ship

San Juan, Puerto Rico.- U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Office of Air and Marine, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), seized a 989 kilograms (2,180 pounds) cocaine shipment and apprehended thirteen men following an at-sea interdiction of a delivery vessel and coastal freighter, approximately eight nautical miles off the north coast of Puerto Rico, Feb. 3, 2015.

The Atlantic VII was registered in St. Vincent and Grenadines, and operated in the Dominican Republic.

Two of the suspected smugglers were charged in a criminal complaint authorized by U.S. Magistrate Camille Vélez-Rivé with conspiracy to import of cocaine; charges are pending on the remaining eleven. The seized cocaine shipment was estimated to have a street value of approximately $29 million dollars.

The suspects aboard the delivery vessel claimed to be of Venezuelan nationality, while the crew of the 267-foot St. Vincent and Grenadines-flag coastal freighter Atlantic VII was comprised of four Dominican Republic nationals, four Cubans, one Peruvian, one Panamanian and an Ecuadorian.

Federal law enforcement authorities involved in the interdiction were working in support of the Caribbean Border Interagency Group’s (CBIG) Operation Caribbean Guard and the Caribbean Corridor Strike Force.

“Our collective effort and resolve is key to secure the Caribbean borders from attempts to smuggle narcotics into the region,” stated Johnny Morales, Director of Air Operations at the CBP Caribbean Air and Marine Branch. “Through sharing of intelligence and tactics, federal and state law enforcement can assist agencies to operate more efficiently.”

While on routine patrol the evening of Tuesday, February 3, 2015, the crew of a Customs and Border Protection DCH-8 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) detected the Atlantic VII hovering outside U.S. territorial waters, and launching a small delivery vessel laden with suspicious packages. Once launched, the delivery vessel headed southbound, towards the northern coast of Puerto Rico, without any navigational lights.

A Coast Guard Station San Juan 45-foot Response Boat Medium and CPB Office of Air and Marine operations marine unit vessels interdicted the smuggler’s delivery vessel.

The CBP MPA maintained constant surveillance as the Coast Guard 45-foot RBM and 33-foot SPC-LE arrived on scene and intercepted the vessel. The Coast Guard crews observed 33 bales of suspected contraband in plain sight, and subsequently detained the two suspected smugglers on board. Shortly thereafter, the CBP marine unit arrived on scene and the crew assisted with the offload of contraband. A further inspection and testing of the suspected drug shipment revealed the contraband to be cocaine.

Meanwhile, having observed this mother ship activity, the Coast Guard Cutter Valiant interdicted and boarded the Atlantic VII, Wednesday morning, approximately 11 nautical miles from Puerto Rico as it attempted to flee the area.

The cocaine shipment, the detained smugglers, and the delivery vessel were transported to Coast Guard Sector San Juan, and transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) -Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agents for further investigation. The Atlantic VII and detained crew were brought to the Port of Ponce, Puerto Rico, for further investigation and the detained crew was transferred to custody of ICE-HSI Special Agents.

CBP’s dual mission is to facilitate travel in the United States while we secure our borders, our people and our visitors from those that would do us harm like terrorists and terrorist weapons, criminals, and contraband. CBP officers are charged with enforcing not only immigration and customs laws, but they enforce over 400 laws for 40 other agencies and have stopped thousands of violators of U.S. law.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the unified border agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with the management, control and protection of our nation’s borders at and between the official ports of entry. CBP is charged with keeping terrorists and terrorist weapons out of the country while enforcing hundreds of U.S. laws.

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