St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Cocaine seizure nets 7 arrests

The cocaine, more than 6 tons of it, is brought to the bay area after being confiscated off the coast of Ecuador.

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2000


TAMPA- Seven people have been arrested and more than 6 tons of cocaine seized in connection with a major organized crime investigation in Florida.

The cocaine, worth an estimated $109-million, was discovered Feb. 16 aboard an 83-foot fishing boat intercepted off the coast of Ecuador. The vessel, Rebelde, has been towed to the Port of St. Petersburg by the Navy and Coast Guard.

According to the two-count indictment unsealed Monday, the defendants "did knowingly and intentionally possess with the intent to distribute" the cocaine.

"We think it's a major case," said Monte Richardson, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, who declined to discuss any details in the ongoing investigation.

It is one of the largest seizures in U.S. history. Last year in Houston, in one of the biggest cocaine busts in U.S. history, authorities seized nearly 5 tons of the drug aboard a freighter delivering iron ore from Brazil. Federal authorities in Tampa refused to comment Monday on where Rebelde is from or where the vessel was headed. They also declined to say whether the suspects are U.S. citizens.

The defendants are expected to appear today in U.S. District Court in Tampa for a bond hearing, Richardson said.

The Rebelde was boarded off Ecuador by members of the USS Doyle out of Mayport. The investigators on the USS Doyle were part of a joint interagency task force based in Alameda, Calif.

Named in the indictment are Rebelde crew members Hemino Ruiz Ibardo, Sigfrido Saavedra Zambrano, Jose Learcio Lopez, Juan Martin Lerma Cabezas, Gustavo Montano Rivas, Javier Caicedo and Angel Antonio Avila Quinones.

The defendants must forfeit the boat and personal property derived through alleged drug money, the indictment says.

Federal agents determined the seized drugs are part of an ongoing investigation by an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force operation in the Middle District of Florida, which stretches from Jacksonville to the Naples area.

Members of the Navy, Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Customs, U.S. Marshals and Immigration and Naturalization participated in the seizure.

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.