TAMPA, Fla. — The Panama Express Strike Force took custody of 8,963 kilograms (19,720 pounds) of cocaine on Friday in a case being investigated by the team of investigators, which includes special agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
The drugs were recovered from a submerged drug smuggling vessel in the Caribbean Sea. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk interdicted the vessel, a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel, or SPSS, on Sept. 30 in international waters some 110 miles off of the coast of Honduras.
The vessel sank during the encounter, and the Mohawk detained the four crew members, who were later transferred to Tampa for prosecution.
Shortly after the interdiction, a multi-agency effort began to recover the suspected drug cargo off of the sunken SPSS. This effort included the deployment of the FBI's Technical Dive Team located in Quantico, Va., which conducted dive operations at the site of the submerged vessel.
"International drug traffickers are increasingly using new technology and techniques, including the use of semisubmersible watercraft, in an attempt to evade detection by law enforcement as they move drugs and other contraband across our borders," said Susan McCormick, ICE HSI special agent in charge in Tampa. "We are responding by working more intelligently and creatively to combat this threat — combining new technology with traditional law enforcement methods to stop them before they reach our borders."
The crew of the SPSS — Jorge Colomer, 47, of Honduras; Guilforth Romero, 24, of Honduras; Manuel Cuero, 30, of Colombia; and Marcos Salazar, 30, of Colombia — have been indicted by a federal grand jury in the Middle District of Florida for violation of the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008 and are being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.
If convicted, each defendant faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in federal prison.
A similar recovery operation earlier this year yielded more than 6,000 kilograms of cocaine from an interdicted SPSS that also sank in the Caribbean. The crew of that vessel is also being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.
This case is being investigated by the Panama Express Strike Force, comprised of agents and analysts from ICE HSI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Joint Interagency Task Force South.