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    Sailors found guilty of smuggling

    Witnesses said two boats tried to elude the Coast Guard, and Coast Guard officials saw bales of cocaine being thrown overboard.

    By GRAHAM BRINK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2001


    TAMPA -- The latest group of Colombian sailors accused of smuggling tons of cocaine in the eastern Pacific Ocean were all found guilty Thursday in federal court of conspiracy and drug charges.

    Many of the 11 men wept as they listened to the interpreter translate the verdicts into Spanish. Their lawyers had argued that many of them had been kidnapped and placed on the boats against their will, a defense the 12 jurors did not accept.

    The men face a mandatory 10-year sentence and up to life in prison. They will be sentenced in June.

    This was the latest in a series of prosecutions that began last year after the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard teamed up to seize 19 tons of cocaine and arrest more than 50 sailors off South America.

    This case included a confidential informant, two speed boats, 8,000 pounds of cocaine afloat in the ocean and a captain who may have leaped overboard. The U.S. Coast Guard stopped the boats Nov. 26 after the informant, who testified during the weeklong trial, tipped off the FBI about their routes and schedules.

    Both boats tried to elude the Coast Guard, witnesses testified. Coast Guard officials saw men on the first boat throwing bales of cocaine overboard. The authorities spotted the second boat after they secured the crew from the first boat.

    No cocaine was found on the second boat, but dozens of bales were found floating in the vicinity. The 11 defendants are Jesus Ramires-Jalberes, Elmer A. Zuniga-Santana, Gerardo Benitez-Cortez, Carlos Valencia Michileno, Victor Lucilo Vivero-Renteria, Jose Valencia, Cesar Augusto Marin-Martinez, Andres Cuero-Rodriguez, Aurelio Quinones-Portocarrero, Jose Nelson Cuero and Cesar A. Santiesteban-Grueso.

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