March 23, 2007
By KATHIA MARTINEZ - Mexico's powerful Sinaloa drug cartel was behind the record 20-ton cocaine shipment that was seized by the U।S. Coast Guard off Panama's Pacific Coast last weekend, officials said Thursday.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has called the seizure, worth nearly $300 million, the largest ever by the Coast Guard. The drugs were found in containers on a ship that left Guyana and passed through the Panama Canal on March 15 on the way to the Mexican state of Sinaloa, said Panama's top drug prosecutor, Jose Almengor.
Coast Guard officials detained 11 Mexicans and three Panamanians during the seizure Sunday about 20 miles southeast of the island of Coiba off Panama's coast. The Mexicans will be taken to the U.S. to face trial, while the Panamanians will be jailed in Panama.
Almengor said the Sinaloa cartel has just begun to establish itself in Panama, which borders Colombia. The majority of Colombia's drugs move along Central America by boat or plane and then pass through Mexico over land before they are smuggled into the United States.
The ship was initially spotted by a Coast Guard patrol aircraft on Saturday. After obtaining permission from the government of Panama, a Coast Guard boarding team searched it on Sunday and discovered the drug cache.
Officials believe fast boats from Colombia had delivered the cocaine to the ship after it had passed through the canal.
'The drugs didn't pass through the canal,' Almengor said. 'That's clear from the way it was packed in a rudimentary way, in sacks within the containers.'
A day before the seizure, officials arrested Mexicans Jorge Alonso Nunez and Jose Ernesto Mondragon as they tried to leave Panama. Both men have been tied to the shipment and face drug trafficking and money laundering charges in Panama.
Most of the cocaine will be sent to the United States to be destroyed, but Panama will keep more than 200 pounds as evidence.
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