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    More sailors face cocaine smuggling charges

    By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 4, 2002

    TAMPA -- In what has become routine, a group of sailors has been brought to federal court in Tampa to face charges of smuggling cocaine from South America.

    In the latest case, the U.S. Coast Guard arrested seven men after boarding the Colombian fishing boat Gisel off Costa Rica on March 27. The search uncovered more than 3,000 pounds of cocaine hidden in the fishing buoys, officials said.

    The sailors had their first appearance in federal court Wednesday. They face charges of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. If convicted, they face 10 years to life in prison.

    The arrests are part of what has been dubbed Operation Panama Express, a continuing investigation in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean that has resulted in confiscation of more than 122 tons of cocaine and about 190 arrests.

    "We applaud the U.S. Coast Guard for their continued efforts to move the battle line for our war on drugs from the streets of the United States to the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean," Paul Perez, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said in a news release.

    According to the indictment, the seven arrested are Porfirio Sinistra, Edinson Ortiz-Gomez, Alejandro Estupinan, Ceferino Angulo, Aris Segundo Segura-Valencia, Ebaristo Aguirre-Miloita and Luis Menelio-Viva.

    On Tuesday, nine other sailors appeared in federal court in Tampa accused of smuggling drugs. The Coast Guard and a Dutch drug enforcement team found a ton of cocaine in March on a 187-foot freighter off the coast of Aruba, a Dutch-controlled island north of Venezuela.

    Some of the seizures in Operation Panama Express have been among the largest in the nation's history. For instance, nearly 16 tons of cocaine seized in two busts on consecutive days in February was estimated to be worth $216-million, based on a wholesale price of $15,000 a kilogram. Authorities said the street value of that much cocaine would be about $2.7-billion.

    Some of the boats seized have been scuttled or towed to the Tampa area, where the trials have taken place. Many of the suspects have received lengthy sentences. Some have been acquitted after their lawyers argued that the defendants were kidnapped and forced onto the boats in Colombia or that they were unaware that the cocaine was hidden on board.

    -- Contact Graham Brink at 266-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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