Federal Jury Finds Venezuelan National Guilty of Trafficking $21 Million Of Cocaine on the High Seas
TAMPA, Fla. - United States Attorney Roger B. Handberg announced that a federal jury found Hector Caballero (70, Venezuela) guilty of conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine on a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, as well as possessing with the intent to distribute cocaine on a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. Caballero faces a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years, and up to life, in federal prison. His sentencing hearing has been scheduled for July 21, 2023. Caballero and three others were indicted on November 30, 2022.
According to testimony presented at trial, a maritime patrol aircraft spotted a panga-style “go-fast vessel” in the Caribbean Sea, about 100 miles north of the nearest point of land in Colombia. The vessel was suspected of drug smuggling because it had several fuel barrels and a tarp covering the deck, had no registration numbers on the hull and was flying no flag, was operating at a high rate of speed, and was sailing in a location where maritime drug smuggling by similar vessels is common. A U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) helicopter and a USCG Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) were deployed from HNLMS Holland, a Dutch naval vessel patrolling in the area, to intercept the suspicious vessel. The helicopter and its crew were from the USCG Helicopter Interdiction Squadron (“HITRON”) unit based in Jacksonville and the LEDET boarding team was from the USCG Tactical Law Enforcement Team South (“TACLET South”) based in Opa-Locka.
The helicopter arrived on scene first and signaled the go-fast vessel to stop. The vessel continued at a high rate of speed, even after the helicopter deployed warning shots in front of the vessel. Ultimately, the helicopter successfully deployed disabling fire to the go-fast vessel’s two outboard engines, and the small boats from the Holland with the USCG LEDET boarding team arrived at the vessel.
The boarding team found Caballero and three others onboard. The USCG determined the vessel to be without nationality, and therefore subject to U.S. jurisdiction. A search of the vessel revealed over 700 kilograms of cocaine, worth approximately $21 million, hidden under the fuel barrels and tarp on the vessel. The three others onboard previously pleaded guilty and are pending sentencing.
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 is being prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida.
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