TAMPA, Fla. - Six crew members of a narcotics smuggling vessel encountered in the Caribbean earlier this year as part of Operation Panama Express were sentenced here to eight to 14 years in prison following a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) led joint operation with U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Office of the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Florida. The crewmembers smuggled 587 kilograms of cocaine with a street value of more than $17 million.
On Feb. 22, 2008, the Coast Guard cutter Dauntless encountered the Miss Alyssa, a 78-foot Honduran fishing vessel, at approximately 130 nautical miles north of Sanblas, Panama. The Miss Alyssa was traveling from Cartagena, Colombia to an unknown location off the coast of Honduras. During the boarding of the vessel, Coast Guard and other law enforcement officers discovered approximately 30 bales of cocaine concealed within a fuel tank on the vessel.
Three Colombian nationals, Julio Cesar Ortega-Perez, 33; Jose Domitilo, 36 and Julio Telles-Milton, 54, and four Honduran nationals, Harry Elmer Rich-Hernandez, 32; Hector Oscar Bernadez-Rochez, 39; Julio Jose Matute-Solis, 49 and Edgardo Francisco Martinez-Castillo, 35, were arrested and brought into the United States to face prosecution. The entire crew pleaded guilty to drug charges in May 2008.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday sentenced Jose Domitilo to nine years in prison, Julio Telles-Milton to 11 years and three months in prison, Edgardo Francisco Martinez-Castillo to 14 years in prison, Hector Bernadez-Rochez to 11 years and three months in prison, Harry Elmer Rich Hernandez to 11 years and three months in prison, and Julio Jose Matute-Solis to eight years and one month in prison. Julio Cesar Ortega-Perez is pending sentencing on September 29, 2008.
"ICE and the other federal agencies in Operation Panama Express North are working together diligently and intelligently to stop the transshipment of drugs and other contraband in the Caribbean," said Robert W. Weber, special agent- in-charge of ICE investigations in Tampa. "ICE will continue using all its resources to dismantle these international narcotics trafficking organizations and win the war against drugs in this part of the world."
Panama Express Strike Force North (PANEX) is a federally approved Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) consisting of ICE, DEA, USCG, IRS, FBI, Pinellas Sheriff Office, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). Operation Panama Express North currently targets Colombian maritime smuggling organizations responsible for cocaine trafficking throughout the Caribbean to the United States and elsewhere for distribution.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Jeffery Downing.