By GRAHAM BRINK
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000
TAMPA -- On the surface, the case looked bleak for the five Colombian fishermen.
The U.S. Coast Guard had found them off the coast of Ecuador in June, with more than 2 tons of cocaine floating a half-mile away. And a Coast Guard lookout said she saw the men throwing the 50-pound bales over the side as the cutter approached.
Even their own story of what happened raised eyebrows. They were on their way to help a fisherman when their own boat broke down, setting them adrift for a week, they said. It was just a coincidence that the cocaine was so close when the cutter appeared.
"Sure, in those terms it doesn't look good," said Marcelino Huerta, one of the defense attorneys. "But the details didn't add up."
And it was those details Huerta and the four other defense attorneys seized on in persuading the jury to acquit their clients Friday on all charges.
The Coast Guard lookout couldn't possibly have seen the men doing anything from the distance she said she first caught sight of the boat, the attorneys argued. Besides that, the lookout never wrote a report. The information was conveniently remembered in time to testify, they said.
On top of that, the men couldn't have unloaded all the bales in time for them to drift so far away. And had the men thrown them overboard, the bales would not have drifted in front of the boat, where they were found, the attorneys argued. The conditions, including an analysis of ocean currents, would have put them behind the boat.
"It was a rush to judgment," defense attorney Ed Page said during closing arguments.
Miguel Benavidas, Henry Rivera, Augusto Perdomas, Taylor Urlado and their captain, Leonel Argulo, had faced possible life sentences if convicted on the charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
When the verdict came after three hours of deliberation, the defendants' reactions were delayed as a Spanish translator relayed what was being said. Argulo was the first to hear that he had been acquitted. He began to sob and looked toward the ceiling. The others soon had tears in their eyes.
The men will remain in jail as the Immigration and Naturalization Service arranges their deportation back to Colombia. It could take several weeks. The attorneys did not predict that their clients would contest being sent back.
"They never wanted to be imported," said Benavidas' attorney, John Kingston.
Since February, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have arrested at least 32 crew members and seized more than 15 tons of cocaine from fishing boats and speedboats in the Pacific Ocean off South America.
Lawyers in some of the cases think the arrests aren't a coincidence. A theory presented in a previous hearing ties the arrests to Jose Castrillon-Henao, a major player in the Cali, Colombia, drug cartel, plucked from a South American jail and brought to the United States by federal authorities.
Castrillon-Henao set up the seizures to appease prosecutors who are about to try him on federal charges, defense lawyers contend. Officials at the U.S. Attorney's Office have not commented about whether the cases are linked to Castrillon-Henao.
Friday's verdict will have little if any effect on how the pending cocaine seizure cases are handled, said David Rhodes, assistant U.S. attorney and a spokesman for the Tampa office.
"We have to look at each of these cases on their own merits," he said.