Drug Enforcement Administration
Skip Navigation

Press Room
News Releases
E-mail updates red envelope
Speeches & Testimony
Multi-Media Library

About Us
Organizational Chart
Programs & Operations
Wall of Honor
DEA Museum
Office Locations

Careers at DEA

DEA Drug Information
Drug Information Resources

Law Enforcement
Most Wanted
Major Operations
Threat Assessment
Training Programs
Stats & Facts
Additional Resources

Drug Prevention
For Young Adults
For Parents
Additional Drug Resources

Diversion Control & Prescription Drugs
Cases Against Doctors

Drug Policy
Controlled Substances Act
Federal Trafficking Penalties
Drug Scheduling

Legislative Resources


Acquisitions & Contracts

Need to know more about drugs?  www.justthinktwice.com

GetSmart About Drugs - A DEA Resource for Parents

News Release
August 26, 2000

U.S. Customs Logo


DEA Logo


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Joint Interagency Task Force-East (JIATF-East) today announced the conclusion of "Operation Journey," a two-year, multi-national initiative against a Colombian drug transportation organization that used commercial vessels to haul multi-ton loads of cocaine to 12 countries, most of them in North America and Europe.

The investigation, which involved authorities from 12 nations and three continents, has resulted in the arrest of 40 individuals, including the alleged leader of the maritime drug transportation organization, Ivan De La Vega, and several of his subordinates. A Colombian citizen, De La Vega was arrested in Maracaibo, Venezuela, on Aug. 16, and turned over to U.S. custody. He faces federal drug charges in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Since its inception, Operation Journey has resulted in the seizure of more than 16 tons of cocaine from this Colombian organization. The location of these seizures ranged from the Netherlands to Venezuela. The operation has also resulted in the seizure of commercial shipping vessels, five go-fast vessels, and communications equipment.

The operation began as separate investigations by the DEA Office in Athens, Greece the Customs Special Agent-in-Charge office in Houston, together with significant input from European law enforcement agencies and JIATF-East. Over time, numerous domestic and international agencies joined the operation. Eventually, all merged their cases into a single probe. Prosecutors from the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section of the U.S. Justice Department's Criminal Division were brought in to provide key legal guidance. The Justice Department coordinated with Customs, the DEA, and other nations to develop the prosecution strategy used to dismantle this organization.

Foreign authorities played critical roles in Operation Journey, making numerous arrests and several large seizures. The operation would not have been possible without the efforts of law enforcement agencies from Great Britain, Venezuela, Colombia, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Albania, Panama, Belgium, Spain, and France.

"Crime knows no borders and has become truly transnational in the millennium," said DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall. "In response, law enforcement has forged the international alliances required to cripple sophisticated transnational criminal organizations like De La Vega's. Operation Journey is only the beginning. All of us gathered here today are dedicated to building upon our success in this operation and bringing all of these dangerous criminals to justice."

According to Customs Commissioner Kelly: "This investigation was unique for the incredible volume of cocaine it kept off the streets of America and Europe. This case also demonstrates what can be achieved when nations of the world work together against a common enemy. Operation Journey should serve as a model for international law enforcement cooperation."

The organization targeted by Operation Journey served as a one-stop shipping service for Colombian cartels interested in moving cocaine via maritime vessels to U.S. and European markets. Based in Colombia and Venezuela, the organization used a fleet of 8-to-10 commercial freighters capable of hauling huge loads of cocaine anywhere in the world. Some of these ships were owned outright by this organization while others were owned by entities in Greece and other nations.

Typically, the cocaine was transported from Colombia via land or air to the Orinoco River Delta on Venezuela's northeast coast. Upon arrival, the cocaine was stashed by the organization in remote jungle hideouts. From these camps, go-fast boats hauled the cocaine to commercial ships stationed offshore. Once onboard, the cocaine was often concealed in secret compartments constructed for smuggling purposes. Upon reaching its intended destination, the cocaine was then offloaded to waiting go-fast boats or other vessels and ferried ashore to locations in Europe and the United States.

To guard against law enforcement, the organization used several techniques. Often, the organization conducted "dry runs" in which the ships only delivered legitimate cargo. On other occasions, the ships hauled legitimate cargo and cocaine. Members of the organization also used sophisticated equipment to communicate in code and frequently changed cell phones to prevent their conversations from being monitored.

Nevertheless, investigators from around the globe were able to penetrate the highest levels of the transportation organization. Customs agents developed key sources in Venezuela and Colombia, while the DEA developed key source in Europe. Investigators were able to gain information about cocaine shipments leaving for Europe and other locations. Agents passed this information to foreign and domestic authorities, enabling them to make arrests and seizures, some of which are detailed below:

  • Based on information provided by Operation Journey, a British naval vessel under the control of JIATF-East stopped the Panamanian-flagged freighter, China Breeze, near Puerto Rico in May 1999. The China Breeze was en route to Amsterdam. A U.S. boarding party found 3,880 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside inoperable sewage tanks of the vessel. The China Breeze was escorted to Texas and her crew arrested. In Nov. 1999, three crewmembers, including the captain, were convicted of federal drug charges. Two other crewmembers pleaded guilty to federal drug charges. Prior to this shipment, the China Breeze had shipped some 10 tons of cocaine to locations in Europe and the United States.
  • Based on information provided by Operation Journey, Dutch authorities seized the Panamanian-flagged vessel, Pearl II, upon her arrival in Amsterdam in December 1999. Inside the vessel, authorities found 2,006 kilograms of cocaine in a secret compartment under the captain's quarters. The compartment measured five feet, by five feet, by 60 feet. Dutch authorities made 14 arrests in connection with the seizure. Prior to this shipment, the Pearl II had shipped approximately 11 tons of cocaine to locations in the United States.

In the end, agents were able to document the movement of at least 68 tons of cocaine by this organization over a three-year period. At the retail level, this cocaine is worth more than $3 billion in Europe. Several of these cocaine shipments were intercepted. Most had occurred before agents learned about them.

Operation Journey culminated during the past two weeks with enforcement actions in Venezuela and Europe. As a result of a collaborative international effort, Venezuelan authorities raided the command-and-control structure of the organization, using roughly 200 anti-drug officers, as well has an array of helicopters, airplanes, and boats.

  • During the initial raid, Venezuelan authorities arrested Ivan De La Vega and Luis Antonio Navia. De La Vega was arrested pursuant to a provisional arrest warrant prepared by U.S. federal agents in Houston. Navia is a Cuban national with U.S. residence status. He has an outstanding warrant for his arrest in Florida. Both were turned over to U.S. authorities. On August 19, U.S. agents flew the pair to the Southern District of Florida, where they face federal drug charges.
  • As part of the takedown, a U.S. Naval vessel stopped the Maltese-flagged ship, the Suerte I, off the coast of Grenada on August 17. A U.S. boarding party searched the vessel, but found no cocaine. U.S. authorities are working to seize the vessel as part of the organization's fleet. The Suerte I is expected to be escorted to Houston. Several days before the boarding, Venezuelan authorities had encountered two boats en-route to the Suerte I, both loaded with cocaine. Several suspects jumped ship and fled into the jungle. The search for these suspects continues.
  • Meanwhile, Venezuelan authorities assisted by U.S. agents began raiding cocaine storage locations in the Orinoco River Delta. A night-time raid on the first jungle camp yielded five go-fast boats, communications equipment, but no cocaine. On August 18, authorities raided a second storage site in Mauzinqina and found 4,000 kilograms of cocaine. Numerous suspects were arrested in this raid. On August 22, Venezuelan authorities raided a third storage site and found 2,200 kilograms of cocaine. On August 23, they found 2,000 more kilograms at a fourth storage camp. It is believed that these last two shipments were destined for the Suerte I.
  • During this same time period, authorities in Europe made several arrests. Earlier this week, authorities in Greece made six arrests in connection with Operation Journey. There was also an arrest made in France and another in Italy.
Home USDOJ.GOV Privacy Policy Contact Us Site Map