U.S. Officials Announce Major Drug Bust

Aug. 26, 2000 -- U.S. officials said today they had broken up a major drug trafficking organization that relied on commercial ships to move Colombian cocaine to destinations in the United States and Europe.

U.S. Customs Service Commissioner Raymond Kelly said nearly 25 tons of cocaine were seized and 43 people arrested during the two-year investigation, tagged “Operation Journey.” The investigation is now over.

“This certainly has dealt a major blow, at least at this point, to the distribution of cocaine out of Colombia,” Kelly said.

Operation Journey included officials from the U.S. Customs Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Joint Interagency Task Force-East and law enforcement from 12 countries where Colombian drug cartels allegedly sent their cocaine.

One-Stop Drug Shipping

In a statement, Customs said the organization was “a one-stop shipping service for Colombian cartels interested in moving cocaine via maritime vessels to U.S. and European markets,” and probably transported no less than 68 tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe over three years.

Venezuelan officials recently said they had seized 10 tons of cocaine and arrested 16 people in a series of raids.

The organization’s suspected leader, Ivan de la Vega, is now in U.S. custody after being arrested in Venezuela on Aug. 16. He faces charges in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Kelly said the operation began as separate investigations by the DrugEnforcement Administration office in Athens, Greece, and the Customsoffice in Houston, Texas, as well as other agencies. Eventually, the Justice Department united and coordinated the investigations.

The organization used eight to 10 freighters. Some were owned bythe organization, but others were owned by shipping companies in Greece and other nations.

The Drug Route

Officials said the cocaine was transported by land or by air from Colombia to theOrinoco River Delta in northeastern Venezuela. The drugs were hidden in the jungle before being taken by boats to offshore freighters. The cocaine was stored in secret compartments on the freighter until the ship reached its destination. Boats were then used to bring the drugs ashore.

The organization would try to throw off investigators by making“dry runs” with legitimate cargo. But by working together, U.S. and foreign officials were able to obtain information about specific cocaine shipments heading to Europe, Kelly said.

“This case demonstrates what can be achieved when nations ofthe world work together against a common enemy,” he said. But Kelly also cautioned that the battle was not over.

“What we’ve seen in the past is organizations will come and fill the void. We’ll be watching closely,” he said.

ABCNEWS Radio and The Associated Press contributed to this report.