Coast Guard Drug Offload Highlights Cocaine's Path from South America to San Diego

U.S. Coast Guard prepared to offload approximately 18,219 pounds of cocaine
On Wednesday, December 6, 2023, in San Diego, CA, at 10th Avenue Marine Terminal, the U.S. Coast Guard prepared to offload approximately 18,219 pounds of cocaine off the Coast Guard Cutter Waesche (WMSL 751) in San Diego. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday unsealed eight indictments in San Diego and elsewhere detailing a massive narcotics trafficking operation by the new bosses of the Beltrán Leyva organization, once one of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels.

The announcement came the same day the U.S. Coast Guard unloaded more than 18,000 pounds of seized cocaine at the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal in Barrio Logan. Officials said the two events were unrelated, as the cocaine offloaded by the Coast Guard was seized over the past two months, while the alleged criminal conduct detailed in the indictments dates back years. But both events highlighted the way Mexican cartels and South American suppliers ship vast amounts of cocaine and other drugs along maritime routes in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Coinciding with the unsealing of the indictments, the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control announced sanctions against 15 people, all Mexican citizens, for their alleged roles in running the Beltrán Leyva organization. Nine of those were among the 29 Mexican citizens named in the three unsealed indictments in San Diego, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California.

Another 31 people were named in the other indictments unsealed in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles.

Among those indicted in San Diego was Oscar Manuel Gastelum Iribe, alias " El Musico." The Treasury Department alleges that he and two other men — Pedro Inzunza Noriega and Fausto Isidro Meza Flores — make up the modern-day leadership of the Beltrán Leyva organization, which is so named for five Beltrán Leyva brothers who previously led the cartel.

"A notoriously violent drug trafficker, Gastelum Iribe, oversees the transportation of drugs from multiple countries, including Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala into various states in Mexico ... for ultimate distribution in the United States," the Treasury Department wrote in announcing sanctions against him. Gastelum Iribe is also under indictment in Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Also among those sanctioned by the Treasury Department was Jose Gil Caro Quintero, cousin of infamous drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, who was behind the 1985 murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena.

All 29 people named in the unsealed cases Wednesday, most of whom remain at large, were indicted on conspiracy charges related to international drug trafficking and trafficking drugs on board a vessel. A criminal complaint for one of the defendants, citing intercepted texts and voice messages, detailed Gastelum's alleged intimate involvement in two successful shipments of cocaine, totaling nearly 6,000 pounds, from South America to Mexico in 2020 and 2021.

According to that complaint, the South American suppliers rendezvoused with smaller "go-fast boats" hundreds of miles off the coast of Central America. The smaller vessels then moved the cocaine to Mexican shores.

It is those types of operations, in the vast international waters of the Pacific, that the Coast Guard tries to detect and disrupt. On Wednesday, the Coast Guard cutter Waesche docked in Barrio Logan with about a dozen pallets loaded with seized cocaine.

Officials said the drugs weighed 18,219 pounds and had an estimated street value of $239 million. The cocaine came from six different seizures — four by the crew of the Waesche and two by the crew of the cutter Active — in October and November.

Capt. Robert Mohr, commander of the Waesche, said one of his crew's seizures was that of a submarine-like vessel — the first seizure of its kind by a Coast Guard ship in the eastern Pacific Ocean in more than four years.

"Waesche was successful in interdicting a self-propelled, semi-submersible vessel with over 5,500 pounds of cocaine on board," Mohr told reporters on board the Waesche. "Semi-submersible vessels are extremely hard to detect due to the nature of their design."

The cocaine offloaded Wednesday was equal to about one quarter of the nearly $1 billion in cocaine seized the previous fiscal year in the eastern Pacific, according to Vice Adm. Andrew Tiongson, commander of the Coast Guard's Pacific area.

"The illicit network of transnational criminal organizations that traffic cocaine from South America to the United States triggers violence, corruption, extortion and instability," Tiongson told reporters. "Today's offload is just one part of the cycle of justice, a cycle which includes detection, interdiction and prosecution of drug smugglers."

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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