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10 Colombians Convicted on Cocaine Charges

Narcotics: Case involved a fishing boat carrying 12 tons of the drug, a record for seizures by U.S. on high seas.

May 01, 1996|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — In a case involving the largest narcotics haul ever seized by U.S. law enforcement agencies on the high seas, a federal jury Tuesday convicted 10 Colombians arrested aboard a Panamanian-registered ship carrying 12 tons of cocaine.

"This demonstrates our commitment to interdict drugs whether they're at the ports of entry or on the high seas," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Gonzalo Curiel, who prosecuted the case along with Assistant U.S. Atty. Bill Gallo. "We're determined to track down the traffickers wherever they are."

The 10 were aboard the Nataly I, a fishing trawler, when it was boarded late last July by a U.S. Navy cruiser, with the permission of the Panamanian government, 780 miles west of Peru. The ship was taken to San Diego, where it remains today.

The cocaine aboard the Nataly I was worth $143 million on the wholesale drug market, and probably several times that much on the retail or street level, prosecutors said.

After a two-week trial before U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff, a jury convicted the master and chief engineer of the 112-foot vessel of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and of distributing cocaine. Eight seamen were convicted of the distribution charge, but the jury could not reach a unanimous decision on the conspiracy count against any of them.

An expert from the Drug Enforcement Administration testified that ships packed with cocaine often travel the same routes near the Galapagos Islands as fishing trawlers before heading to rocky, uninhabited Clipperton Island 670 miles southwest of Mexico. The island, named for 18th century English pirate John Clipperton, has a long history as a staging ground for smugglers.

Once at Clipperton, the huge cocaine loads are broken down into smaller loads and dispersed to smaller boats for the trip northward. Some drug experts believe that the illicit cargo on these smaller boats is unloaded in Mexico into vehicles headed to the United States.

Before the Nataly I was seized, the record for a cocaine seizure was 6 tons taken in 1989 from a Colombian ship.

The cocaine in the Nataly I was found hidden in 13 secret compartments amid the ship's huge oil tanks. It took Navy and Coast Guard investigators three days to find all 24,325.5 pounds of the powdery drug. One indication that the vessel was not involved in fishing was that no fish were found aboard.

The defendants, ages 31 to 57, were all from Cali, Colombia, headquarters of the violence-prone cartel considered the world's top supplier of cocaine.

The master of the ship, Richard Klimavicius-Viloria, 37, and the chief engineer, Dagoberto Lerma-Lerma, 57, face up to life in prison on the conspiracy and distribution charges.

The eight seamen, found guilty of distribution, face a minimum of 10 years in prison and a $4,000 fine. Sentencing is set for July 29.

The charges were brought under a 1986 law that allows U.S. authorities to seize narcotics from ships outside its territorial waters. In other high-seas cases, the Los Angeles-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that prosecutors must prove that the drugs were headed for the U.S.

A DEA expert testified, to the satisfaction of Judge Huff, that the packaging on the cocaine was similar to that in loads found in the U.S., which accounts for an estimated 300 tons of the world's annual 800-ton consumption of cocaine.

The Nataly I was seized and is considered the property of the U.S. government and subject to sale, unless a protest is filed by the owner.

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