MORE THAN 16 TONS OF COCAINE SEIZED DURING THE OPERATION
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:
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.