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US authorities capture Vincentian registered fishing vessel

US authorities capture Vincentian registered fishing vessel

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A 70-foot fishing vessel, which was intercepted two weeks ago in the Atlantic Ocean carrying cocaine with a value of over US$71 million, is now back in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG).

The Lady Michelle, a SVG registered vessel, was intercepted during the night of February 16 by the US Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Napier ininternational waters north of Paramaribo,Suriname, in the Atlantic Ocean.

According to coastguardnews.com, the crew of the Joseph Napier seized the contraband, apprehended four men, and towed the fishing vessel until relieved by the US Coast Guard Cutter Vigilant. Vigilant then towed the fishing vessel to SVG and transferred the seized vessel to the custody of the St Vincent Coastguard.

Lt Commander Deon Henry of the SVG Coastguard Service confirmed to SEARCHLIGHT that the boat was handed over to the SVG Coastguard by the US Coast Guard on February 23, just outside the territorial waters of SVG.

Henry said on receipt of the vessel, the local coast- guard then handed it over to Wiltie Harry of Canouan, the boat’s owner.

The seizure of the boat and the 4.2 tonnes of cocaine, said to be the biggest bust in the Atlantic in almost 20 years, is the result of an anti-drugs operation, involving the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), the US Coast Guard (USCG) and US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a release from the NCA said.

Four members of the vessel’s crew – Mohamed Nazim Hoseain, 64; Richard La Cruz, 49; Neville Jeffrey, 68; and 30-year old Mark Anthony Williams, all Guyanese nationals, appeared before the court in the United States Virgin Islands on Wednesday, March 1 for a detention hearing and now face potential prosecution.

The haul was taken to San Juan, Puerto Rico, by a USCG cutter, where the cargo, made up of 185 bales, weighing a total of 4,240 kilos, was unloaded and placed in the custody of DEA Caribbean Division special agents for processing and disposition.

According to a statement given in court papers by DEA Special Agent Jeremy Latchman, 185 bales of cocaine, each fetching a street value of US$17,500 per kilogramme in the US Virgin Islands, were found behind a false wooden bulkhead in the vicinity of the vessel’s hold. The total value of the cocaine is US$71,750,000. Latchman said US$4,000 in 100 dollar bills were also found in the vessel.

Latchman said Hoseain initially lied that he and he and his crew had been searching for a missing vessel and that Lady Michelle was registered in Guyana. The DEA agent said after SVG authorities confirmed the nationality of the vessel, permission was obtained to board it in keeping with a bilateral agreement in the fight against drug trafficking.

The DEA agent related that the fishing vessel was found on a route usually used by drug traffickers who fetch South American cocaine to the Caribbean, United States and other countries.

“The vessel that was later identified as the Lady Michelle appeared to be dead-in-the-water and was also in water too deep to conduct normal fishing operations. The vessel was also located in a known drug trafficking route.”

Steve Reynolds, the NCA’s head of international operations, said: “We believe that the drugs were headed for West Africa, a well-known staging post for cocaine destined for the European market.

“Based on UK prices, our estimate is that this shipment would have had a wholesale value to organised crime of more than £150 million, but if cut and sold on the streets of Britain or Europe it could generate two or three times that.”

The DEA said cross-border collaboration had become vital to responding to the increase in cocaine flow from South America.

“The excellent coordination between the U.S. Coast Guard, and international law enforcement agencies prevented this major drug shipment from reaching our communities,” said Capt Robert W Warren, Coast Guard Sector San Juan commander. “We appreciate our continued partnerships with the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard and St Vincent Coastguard. Our collective efforts are working to secure our region’s maritime borders and protect our citizens from this threat.”

The ongoing investigation into the shipment will now be led by the DEA, with support from the NCA, the NCA release said.

A SVG law enforcement official told SEARCHLIGHT yesterday that investigations here in SVG will most likely be handled by the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) and the drug squad of the Royal St Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force.

SEARCHLIGHT reached out yesterday to Carla James, head of the local FIU; she, however declined to comment.

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