Mexican national sentenced to over 20 years in prison for setting fire to drug smuggling vessel during U.S. Coast Guard interdiction

TAMPA, Fla. – Jesus Soto-Martinez (41, Michoacan, Mexico) was sentenced to 21 years and 3 months in federal prison for conspiring to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine while onboard a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, forcibly interfering with a lawful boarding, and knowingly using fire to commit a felony offense. Soto-Martinez had pleaded guilty on November 20, 2019.

According to court documents, on February 19, 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Cutter STEADFAST interdicted a go-fast vessel (GFV) carrying Soto-Martinez and his co-conspirators in international waters about 378 nautical miles south of Acapulco, Mexico. The defendants were carrying approximately 2,000 kilograms of cocaine on the GFV. During the pursuit of the vessel, Jose Varges-Merida, a co-defendant, refused to comply with the USCG commands to stop and steered the GFV in the direction of the USCG vessel carrying its law enforcement detachment, causing the USCG vessel to significantly alter course and momentarily become unstable. The coxswain was forced to make evasive maneuvers to avoid the GFV from running over the USCG vessel and its crewmen. The USCG was then able to stop the GFV by using several rounds of disabling fire.

During the boarding of the GFV, Soto-Martinez intentionally started a fire onboard the GFV by lighting one of the fuel barrels on fire. After jumping off the GFV, Soto-Martinez clung to the side of the GFV and lifted up the tarp covering the cocaine bales, seemingly in an effort to ensure the nearby fire spread to the load of drugs. Almost immediately, the fire spread out of control and eventually engulfed the entire vessel. It took 90 minutes to extinguish. The majority of the GFV was burned to the waterline and the vast majority of cocaine was burned to an unsalvageable extent.

This case was investigated by the Tampa District Office Panama Express Strike Force, an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force comprised of agents and analysts from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the United States Coast Guard Investigative Service, , the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and the U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force South. It was prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida.

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