TAMPA, Fla. - Ferney Quinones De La Cruz, 34, of Colombia, pleaded guilty today to conspiring with others to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, while on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.
The case was investigated by the Panama Express Strike Force South, comprised of agents and analysts from U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Coast Guard Investigative Service, and U.S. Southern Command's Joint Interagency Task Force South.
Because this is Quinones De La Cruz's second felony drug offense, he faces a mandatory minimum term of 20 years in federal prison, and a maximum term of life imprisonment.
According to the plea agreement, on April 19, 2009, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Midgett interdicted Quinones De La Cruz aboard a stateless go-fast vessel in international waters, approximately 25 nautical miles from Cabo Corrientes, Colombia. Upon first locating the vessel, Coast Guard personnel on Midgett's helicopter signaled for the vessel to stop.
Quinones De La Cruz and his co-conspirators ignored these signals. Consequently, a marksman on the Coast Guard helicopter fired warning shots across the bow of the go-fast vessel, which were also ignored by the defendant and his co-conspirators. The marksman then fired disabling fire into one of the vessel's engines. One of the co-conspirators then sat on another of the go-fast vessel's engines, in an attempt to shield it from fire.
The helicopter returned to Midgett for fuel and, after re-fueling, reacquired the go-fast vessel. The marksman then shot out the second engine. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection aircraft was overhead during the entire pursuit and made a video recording of the defendants jettisoning bales.
The go-fast vessel stopped and the mariners began dousing it with gasoline. A Coast Guard boarding team arrived on-scene before the co-conspirators were able to set fire to the vessel.
Upon boarding the vessel, Coast Guard personnel found that it had no registration document, was flying no flag, displayed no home or hailing port, and had no indication of nationality. The captain of the vessel claimed Colombian nationality for the vessel, a claim the government of Colombia could neither confirm nor deny. Accordingly, the Eleventh Coast Guard District assimilated the vessel to a vessel without nationality status.
Cooperating witnesses subsequently informed the government that the go-fast vessel had been loaded with approximately 1,000 kilograms of cocaine.
Quinones De La Cruz was transferred to Midgett, where he pretended to be injured. Out of an abundance of caution, the Coast Guard medically evacuated him to Colombia.
Quinones De La Cruz was subsequently arrested in Colombia pursuant to a provisional arrest warrant, and extradited to the United States, first arriving at a place in the Middle District of Florida.
Quinones De La Cruz has a prior felony drug conviction in the United States, which results in the minimum mandatory term of 20 years' imprisonment. On Sept. 17, 2004, he was convicted of conspiring with others to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, while on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, and possessing with intent to distribute five kilograms of cocaine, while on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, both counts in violation of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. He pled guilty to these offenses on about July 23, 2003. In this prior case, Quinones De La Cruz was a mariner embarked in a go-fast vessel smuggling more than 1,000 kilograms of cocaine, in international waters.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher F. Murray.