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3 men charged in maritime drug smuggling operation

MIAMI - The three men arrested and charged Wednesday with maritime cocaine trafficking made their initial appearances in federal court in the Southern District of Florida on Thursday, following an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, FBI and Miami-Dade Police Department.

Willie Elvis Evanks Balico, Oscar Ortiz Aguilar, and Marlon Ponce Almendares, all of Honduras, were charged with cocaine possession with intent to distribute.

If convicted, the defendants face a maximum term of life imprisonment. A detention hearing is scheduled for Jan. 4 at 10 a.m. before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrea M. Simonton.

According to the complaint affidavit, on Dec. 17, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Thetis was conducting a routine maritime patrol in international waters off the Panamanian coastline. During this patrol, the Cutter Thetis launched its embarked HITRON helicopter to assist in the patrol. While approximately 75 nautical miles north of Colon, Panama, the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter observed and approached an unflagged go-fast style vessel heading north.

After observing numerous bales on the deck of the vessel and several fuel drums, U.S. Coast Guard crewmembers on board the helicopter believed the vessel to be engaged in narcotics trafficking. After receiving authorization, the U.S. Coast Guard crewmember fired warning shots across the bow of the go-fast vessel. Subsequent to the warning shots, the go-fast vessel stopped its engines. Shortly thereafter, a Coast Guard team boarded the vessel and observed approximately 62 on the deck of the vessel. These bales later field-tested positive for the presence of cocaine. Each bale contained numerous kilogram-sized bricks of cocaine.

According to the complaint, the defendants were then transported to Miami and were arrested by DEA special agents on Wednesday. The 62 bales of suspected cocaine were moved to a secure facility, where it was determined that the cocaine weighed approximately 1,500 kilograms (or approximately 3,300 pounds).

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Dustin M. Davis.