MEXICO CITY -- A Panamanian-flag vessel carrying 15 tons of pure cocaine was scuttled 1,000 miles west of Acapulco late last month as a U.S. Navy vessel was about to overtake it, U.S. drug experts disclosed here for the first time yesterday. It would have been the second-largest cocaine seizure in U.S. history.
Yesterday's disclosure came as the Mexican attorney general announced the seizure Friday of 6.5 tons of cocaine near the Guatemalan border. The seizure was the largest in Mexican history.
The two incidents, together with the discovery of a 3-ton load i a natural gas tank truck near San Diego Friday, mean that more than 24 tons of cocaine with a retail value of about $600 million has been intercepted in less than two weeks by U.S. and Mexican authorities.
The U.S. officials said the huge quantities of cocaine indicat that the Colombian cartels are taking advantage of the weakened U.S. surveillance caused by the diversion of ships and planes to the Persian Gulf.
"They figure now is the time to move," said a top U.S. dru official here. "We have detected a definite increase in shipments that indicates to us that the Colombians are still very much in the drug business."
The largest U.S. cocaine seizure occurred last year when mor than 20 tons was found in a warehouse near Los Angeles.
The Panamanian freighter was being used to offload cocaine t threeor four smaller craft coming from Mexico. Mexican and U.S. authorities had been tracking the ship for days and knew it had 15 tons aboard, the U.S. authorities said.
A U.S. Navy warship was called to make the arrest because th Mexican navy does not seize ships beyond the nation's 200-mile economic zone.
The officials here could provide few details of the ship scuttlin other than to say the crew apparently blew a hole in the hull just as the Navy vessel was bearing down on the ship. The drugs were not recovered.
The predominantly Colombian crew and its Belgian captain wer taken to the United States for trial. The captain had a U.S. drug warrant pending against him, the U.S. officials here said.
In the Mexican seizure at a small clandestine airfield in the stat of Chiapas near the Guatemalan border, one Mexican judicial undercover agent was wounded in the head in a shootout early Sunday morning. A Mexican citizen was arrested, but the other traffickers managed to escape because the authorities delayed their final assault until first light.
Attorney General Luis Alvarez de Castillo said the markings o the packages of cocaine indicated that they came from members of the Fabio Ochoa drug family, one of the principal drug cartels of Medellin. The packages nearly filled one side of the basement of the attorney general's headquarters.
A spokesman for the attorney general said the border seizur indicated that the cartels were now flying their loads to the Pacific coast of Guatemala to avoid radar detection at preferred landing fields in northern Mexico. The Guatemalan coast is dotted with hundreds of tiny airfields that have no radar surveillance.
The shipments are then flown again to southern Mexico, a fligh that takes slightly less than 30 minutes and gives the authorities here only a few minutes to track it in Mexican airspace. The drug is then shipped north by land, sea or air.
Mexican radar surveillance does not cover internal flights bu concentrates on planes that have taken off from Colombia, U.S. officials say.
The Chiapas seizure was the fruit of a 60-day Mexican investigation involving about 40 men, the spokesman said. They were tipped off by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials operating in Guatemala.
Both the ship incident and the Chiapas seizure were viewed a symbols of the close cooperation that has developed between U.S. and Mexican agencies.
Mexico has captured a record 70 tons of pure cocaine this year, U.S. authorities said.