Police divers arrest two Colombians in $4.2 million underwater narcotics bust

February 24, 1991|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Police scuba divers inspecting the hull of an oil tanker in New York Harbor made an unusual discovery recently, and it was not only the 366 pounds of cocaine hidden under water in the rudder compartment.

It was also the people who were guarding it: two shivering and louse-infested Colombians who had survived five stormy days in a 10-foot air pocket, virtual prisoners of the sea.

Customs officials said the tanker crew knew nothing of the stowaways, who had smuggled themselves into the rudder compartment by raft in Cartagena, Colombia, when the compartment was above water.

This was before the tanker, the Bright Eagle, loaded oil.

As the vessel loaded, the rudder compartment sank below water, leaving the stowaway guards and the cocaine in an air pocket, authorities said. The two survived on fruit, cheese and water.

Officials withheld word of the discovery for several days to help further the investigation. They said the seizure, estimated to be worth $4.2 million if sold on the street, was one of the largest of its type in New York Harbor.

They said it represented the extreme techniques drug smugglers were using as law-enforcement authorities hounded them and cut off their more traditional methods, such as strapping drugs to couriers' bodies or carrying the drugs in briefcases.

Until the oil in the Bright Eagle was unloaded, thus raising the rudder compartment above water, the two men were destined to be prisoners of the 10-by-10-foot compartment next to the deafening roar of the ship's propeller.

The cocaine was packed in vinyl and stashed in three brown duffel bags.

Customs agents boarded the tanker, registered in Monrovia and carrying a Korean crew, Jan. 24 while the vessel was anchored off Staten Island near Stapleton. The tanker's ultimate destination was Roseton, N.Y., near Newburgh, said Robert Van Etten, a customs agent in Newark, N.J.

Officials believe that the two stowaways were planning to deliver the cocaine at Roseton. The men were identified as Jhon Cuesta Caro, 27, and Nicholas Cordoba Zapata, 25.

Both have been charged with importation of a controlled substance and face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted, said Mr. Van Etten.

"We consider them mules," he said. "For a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, they put their life in jeopardy."

Two police divers, who swam around the tanker tied to one another and to a third diver on the surface so as not to get lost in the murky, frigid harbor waters discovered the stowaways.

Groping in the pitch black, the divers followed the rudder post up into the air pocket of the rudder compartment.

"I shined my light on the burlap bags with the drugs and then moved it to the other side, and I saw these two eyes," said one of the divers, Officer Antonio Gonzalez, 27.

"I was more surprised than he was, and I tried to grab my partner and dive under, but it takes at least 20 seconds to deflate my suit, and I thought he was going to shoot.

"I was shocked. You think of it as a game. You never expect to find anybody."

Mr. Gonzalez said he grabbed his partner, Tommy Beirne, 24, and pulled him under water, desperately yanking the rope that connected them with the safety diver on the surface.

Customs officers and divers then entered the rudder compartment from inside the ship and found the two men, 10 feet above the water, shivering in soaked clothes on a ledge. There were bottles of water,fruit and cheese, some blankets, a flashlight and two rafts. The men wore ear protection to offset the noise of the propeller.

Mr. Gonzalez said that one stowaway was terrified and had to be calmed. Both men, he said, were afraid their families in Colombia would be murdered in retaliation for their having botched the cocaine delivery.

"They were in pretty bad physical shape," Mr. Gonzalez said. "They told me their family would be killed and that they did not want to go back to Colombia."

The rudder technique is new, Mr. Van Etten said.

"Until last year smugglers never felt the need to do this," he said. "They became more innovative because of intense searches and alsobecause older ships did not have space to climb in the rudder compartment."

In addition to hiding narcotics in the rudder of ships, the new techniques also involve encasing the drugs in a protective shell, resembling a torpedo, that is stuck onto the hull with a magnetic mounter, Mr. Van Etten said.

New York customs officials said this type of smuggling, in which drugs are concealed in an external compartment without the knowledge of the ship's crew, was the second such seizure they had made and that about 20 seizures had been made nationally in 1990.

Customs officials, with the help of New York City police scuba teams, target ships that arrive from Colombia.

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