Ecuadorian And Mexican Nationals Found Guilty Of Trafficking Cocaine In The Eastern Pacific Ocean

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FILE PHOTO: Signage is seen at the United States Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Tampa, FL – United States Attorney Roger B. Handberg announces that a federal jury has found Manuel Angel Velez-Acosta (33, Ecuador), Guillermo Cabrera Perez (48, Mexico), Andres Nixon Gonzales-Catagua (48, Ecuador), and Hernan David Gonzales-Quiroz (42, Ecuador) guilty of possessing and conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine on a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. The defendants each face a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years, and up to life, in federal prison. The sentencing hearings have been scheduled for October 13, 2022. They were indicted on February 4, 2021.

According to testimony presented at trial, on January 26, 2021, a U.S. Navy airplane detected a 25-30 foot open-hull motorboat in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, about 400 nautical miles south of Mexico, operating in a location where maritime drug smuggling by similar vessels is common. As the Navy aircrew watched and video-recorded, the defendants, who were the four crewmembers on board that boat, began jettisoning packages of cocaine overboard into the water. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter BERTHOLF was patrolling nearby and launched its helicopter and small boats to investigate. After arriving on scene, the Coast Guard determined the vessel was without nationality, and therefore subject to U.S. jurisdiction. Although the Coast Guard was unable to recover the jettisoned packages, it was able to collect chemical trace detection evidence, which showed the presence of cocaine in the same compartments of the boat where the defendants had done the jettisoning. Cocaine was also found on one of the defendant’s hands.

This case was investigated by the United States Coast Guard and the Panama Express Strike Force, a standing Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) Strike Force comprised of agents and analysts from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and the U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force South. OCDETF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level criminal organizations that threaten the United States using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach. Additional information about the OCDETF Program can be found at www.justice.gov/OCDETF.

The case was prosecuted by Special Assistant United States Attorney Matthew Del Mastro and Assistant United States Attorney Joseph Ruddy.