The “Juan Sebastián de Elcano” Spanish military training ship used to smuggle cocaine from Colombia to New York.

A military judge has indicted six Spanish military sailors and a civilian for allegedly trafficking cocaine hidden aboard a naval training ship, a rare case touching upon the often overlooked role of yachts and Europe's armed forces in drug trafficking modus operandi.

The six military were crew members of the "Juan Sebastián de Elcano" naval training ship in 2014. According to El País, the indictment accuses them of "having taken advantage of the absence of a customs check of the ship when it docked at international ports […] to allegedly participate in cocaine trafficking from Cartagena to New York, where they were to receive payment from the local supplier for the smuggled drugs."

Authorities believe that the ship's civilian cook, Manuel Francisco Sirvente Prius alias "El Naca," was a trusted contact of Colombian drug traffickers and introduced the sailors to Joaquín Pernett Zapatero, alias "Mondongo" or "Mondonguito," when the ship called at the port of Cartagena in April 2014. Mondongo gave the sailors a total of 31 kilograms of cocaine, for which they were to be payed $64,000 upon delivery in New York. One of the sailors was also given $1,000 upfront to hide the cocaine in the ship's waste plant.

The cook also received $1,000 to threaten two of the sailors who backtracked out of the deal once in New York, warning them that "their [physical] integrity was in danger" if they didn't deliver.

Over the summer of 2014, two separate investigations by US Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration led local distributors in New York and New Jersey to admit to having received the drugs from the crew members.

While the indictment only concerns 31 kilos of drugs, the scheme was probably of greater magnitude. On July 30, 2014, the Spanish Navy announced the discovery of 127 kilos of cocaine aboard the ship, whose origin and destination have not yet been established. According to the military judge who brought down the indictment, Patricia Moncada, Mondongo and one of the accused sailors, Jimmy Enrique Vanoni Calderón, were planning on trafficking between 300 and 400 kilos of drugs the following year during the military ship's crossing.

InSight Crime Analysis

The case surrounding the Elcano is a reminder that yachts remain a means of trafficking drugs across the seas, a modus operandi that sporadically receives media attention in instances of high profile busts but against which authorities remain relatively powerless. While drug seizures indicate that Central America remains the prized corridor for shipping drugs to the US, there are also a number of Caribbean trafficking routes to Europe embarking from Venezuela, Brazil and Colombia, amongst other countries.

The involvement of EU security forces isn't commonly seen in such cases, and demonstrates how it isn't just Latin American military and police who abuse their power and position for the spoils offered by drug trafficking and organized crime.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Caribbean

Using private boats to move product is unlikely to account for a big chunk of overall maritime trafficking, as cargo ships have the capacity to transport much larger quantities of products at a time. But it renders the authorities' task complicated, as there are very few customs checks of yachts in both Latin American and European ports.

As a former customs intelligence officer told Vice News, "People have been smuggling illicit goods across the sea for hundreds of years -- it's one of the old-school trades -- and there is little to stop them doing so for another hundred years. As sure as the tide comes in, and until successive governments address the societal issues that help create the market, so will the cocaine."

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

When someone is murdered in Guatemala, police, forensic doctors and government prosecutors start making their way to the crime scene and a creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucratic machine kicks into gear. Calls are made. Forms are filled out by hand, or typed into computers, or both. Some...

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

When violence surged in early 2015 in Guatemala, then-President Otto Pérez Molina knew how to handle the situation: Blame the street gangs. 

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

  The Bajo Cauca Franchise BACRIM-Land Armed Power Dynamics The BACRIM in places like the region of Bajo Cauca are a typical manifestation of Colombia's underworld today: a semi-autonomous local cell that is part of a powerful national network. The BACRIM's roots lie in the demobilized paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

  Life of a Sicario Anatomy of a Hit   The BACRIM's control over territories such as the north Colombian region of Bajo Cauca comes at the point of a gun, and death is a constant price of their power. In rural sectors, uniformed BACRIM armed with assault rifles still patrol in...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

In the last decade, homicides in Guatemala have obeyed a fairly steady pattern. Guatemala City and some of its surrounding municipalities have the greatest sheer number of homicides. Other states, particularly along the eastern border have the highest homicide rates. Among these are the departments of Escuintla...