SATURDAY, AUGUST 26, 2000 'OPERATION JOURNEY' DISMANTLES COLOMBIAN ORGANIZATION THAT SHIPPED COCAINE TO 12 NATIONS NEARLY 25 TONS OF COCAINE SEIZED 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 Europe and North America. The investigation, which involved authorities from 12 nations and three continents, has resulted in the arrest of 43 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 22,489 kilograms of cocaine or nearly 25 tons of cocaine. On the streets of Europe, this cocaine could generate roughly $1 billion at the retail level. The location of these seizures ranged from the Netherlands to Venezuela. The operation has also resulted in the seizure of commercial shipping vessels, go-fast boats, and communications equipment. The operation began as separate investigations by the DEA Country Office in Athens, Greece, the Customs Special Agent-in-Charge office in Houston, together with major 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 officials from other nations to develop the prosecution strategy 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 Albania, Belgium, Colombia, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Panama, Spain, Great Britain, and Venezuela. "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 U.S. Customs Service Commissioner Raymond W. 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 by shipping firms in Greece and other nations, while others were owned by this Colombian organization. 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. Working with foreign counterparts, the DEA developed information on the European connections, while Customs agents developed information on the South American connections. As a result, investigators were able to gain specific 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, U.S. 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 amount of cocaine could generate roughly $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 is a U.S. Customs fugitive wanted on prior federal drug charges. 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 several go-fast boats and communications equipment, but no cocaine. On August 17, authorities raided a second storage site and found 3,900 kilograms of cocaine. Numerous suspects were arrested in this raid. On August 22, Venezuelan authorities raided a third storage site and found 2,400 kilograms of cocaine. On August 23, they found 2,500 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 conducted raids and made 8 arrests in connection with shipping firms linked to the Colombian organization. There were also two arrests made in Italy and another made in France.