Twenty tons of cocaine seized off the Pacific coast of Panama over the weekend were believed headed to a Mexican port for delivery to the notorious Sinaloa cartel, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The seizure Sunday of drugs valued at more than $275 million wholesale was described by the officials as the largest recorded maritime cocaine bust.
The drugs were believed to have been purchased by Ismael Zambada, a suspected leader of Mexico’s so-called Sinaloa cartel, officials said. The cache was seized aboard a 300-foot Panamanian-flagged freighter destined for an unspecified port in Mexico.
The drugs had been loaded onto the ship off Colombia’s northwest Pacific coast. The ship was steaming northwest about 15 miles off the Panamanian island of Coiba when it was intercepted by units of the U.S. Coast Guard, Panamanian police and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Fourteen crew members, 11 of them Mexican and the others Panamanian, were arrested.
“Information developed so far indicates the cocaine does indeed belong to Zambada,” said one U.S. government official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to comment.
U.S. agents were tipped off about the shipment by undercover sources developed in Colombia and in Panama by the DEA as part of investigations being coordinated by Operation Panama Express, or PANEX, an interagency investigative task force based in Tampa, Fla.
PANEX, headed by Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Ruddy, was set up in early 2000 to investigate a Colombian cocaine smuggling operation that used fishing boats. It has since evolved into a semipermanent investigative arm of U.S. counter-narcotics efforts in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific.
The task force works closely with a Key West, Fla.-based military umbrella group that coordinates U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels with those of other nations to make seizures at sea.
The Navy and Coast Guard are thought to have a dozen ships patrolling the Caribbean and eastern Pacific dedicated to seizing suspicious cargos.
Working together, the task forces have seized 630 tons of cocaine since January 2000, Ruddy said Tuesday. His office has convicted more than 1,100 drug-trafficking suspects.
Panama, like much of Central America, has become a major transit point for Colombian cocaine in recent years. Before the bust Sunday, Panamanian and U.S. counter-narcotics officials already had seized 20 tons of cocaine this year in Panamanian territory or waters.
A longtime drug trafficker in his late 50s known as “El Mayo,” Zambada is thought to be one of Mexico’s most powerful cartel leaders, filling a power vacuum created by the downfall of the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix gang earlier this decade.
Zambada was once a second-tier enforcer for Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the head of the so-called Juarez cartel who died in 1997 while undergoing plastic surgery. Zambada has grown in power, law enforcement sources say, with the eclipse of other rivals, including Osiel Cardenas, a suspected leader of the so-called Gulf cartel who was extradited to the U.S. this year.
The largest previous maritime cocaine seizure was the 13.9 tons found aboard a boat at an unspecified location in the eastern Pacific in September 2004, U.S. government sources said Tuesday.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy and U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad W. Allen are expected to attend a news conference today to discuss the operation.