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Guilty plea of cocaine trafficker ‘Aquaman’ illustrates key Eastern Pacific routes

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Stratton (WMSL-752) crew board a low-profile go-fast vessel suspected of smuggling illegal drugs in international waters off the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Aug. 27, 2018.

U.S. COAST GUARD

By KRISTINA DAVIS | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: November 3, 2018

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — With a fleet of “go-fast” vessels and a support network stretching from Colombia to Mexico, the drug trafficking leader known as “Aquaman” coordinated the movement of more than 10,000 kilograms of cocaine along the Eastern Pacific seaboard, bound for the United States.

The Guatemalan operation run by Luis Carlos Melgar Morales, 28, and his alleged boss, Willian Lemus Lara, represent a key shift in the cocaine trafficking routes, as Colombian cartels have forged relationships with neighboring criminal organizations to move their product north.

Decades ago, cocaine flooded the Caribbean and Florida, spurring violence and excess in Miami. But as Mexican cartels like the Sinaloa grew in power, Colombian cocaine producers decided to leave the trafficking part to others, and the routes moved west.

Now, cocaine is often staged in places like Venezuela and Ecuador, and then moved by boat along Central America, landing on mainland Mexico’s western coastline to be smuggled through the mountains and deserts and ultimately over the U.S. border.

Today, 85 percent of the documented cocaine departing South America is routed through the Eastern Pacific, according to federal officials.

Of the cocaine that reaches the Southwest border, the largest concentration comes through San Diego.

Federal authorities in San Diego are pushing nationally to establish a maritime strike force to be based here, combining the resources of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations, FBI, Coast Guard, U.S. attorney’s office, Customs and Border Protection and others, U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman said in an interview.

“The times have changed,” Braverman said. “Now, this is where it’s at. Right here.”

Cocaine is rebounding in volume and popularity in the U.S., because of significant increases in coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia, according to the DEA’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment, released Friday. The purity is high and the prices are low.

There have also been increased reports of a “high heat” cocaine that is more than 97 percent pure, costing thousands of dollars more per kilogram than other cocaine. In October 2017, DEA agents in San Diego identified a wholesaler operating between Tijuana and San Diego who was seeking to import “high heat” cocaine into the U.S., supplied by the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion, or CJNG, the DEA reported.

The Coast Guard has responded to the shift in cocaine routes in recent years by increasing its presence in the Eastern Pacific and working more closely with the Mexican military, leading to record seizures.

In fiscal 2018, which ended Wednesday, the Coast Guard seized 192,411 kilograms, or 212 tons, of cocaine at sea — most of it in the Eastern Pacific, officials said.

Last month, the Coast Guard cutter Stratton docked in San Diego and offloaded more than 11 tons of cocaine seized at sea from late August to mid-September — quantities that have become routine. The people caught aboard the drug-laden boats also disembark on these stops to face prosecution in San Diego.

But it’s the high-level leadership of the trafficking cells that authorities in San Diego and agents based abroad are really focused on.

On Thursday, Melgar pleaded guilty to an international drug distribution conspiracy, and Lemus, also known as “Humil,” is in custody in Guatemala awaiting extradition to San Diego.

In his plea agreement, Melgar admitted overseeing the transportation of cocaine in go-fast vessels that ride low to the waterline and are equipped with powerful engines. He coordinated rendezvous with refueling boats at sea and facilitated deliveries in multiple countries up the Latin American coast.

Law enforcement seized many of his loads, including 980 kilograms in May 2017 and 1,082 kilograms in December, court records state.

He was arrested Jan. 26 at the Los Angeles International Airport as he was returning to Guatemala. The plea agreement includes the forfeiture of $1 million.

His associate, Lemus, was arrested in June in Guatemala on a San Diego warrant.

Lemus’ brother, Josue Adan Lemus Lara, was arrested two months later in Colombia. Colombian officials say he worked as a link between the Sinaloa cartel and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerrilla group better known as FARC.

A recent Coast Guard interception illustrates a typical leg of the journey north.

The blue go-fast vessel was dead in the water when the cutter Tahoma found it in the Eastern Pacific Aug. 18, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in San Diego federal court.

Five Mexicans were aboard, as were five outboard engines, 50 cans of fuel, GPS devices, satellite phones and a radio. Hidden under a green tarp were multiple packages of cocaine, marked with the letters “KKK” — 769 kilograms in all, according to the affidavit.

At one point, one of the go-fast crew members asked to use the restroom, and while in it, tossed something overboard, authorities said. Coast Guard crew retrieved two zipped plastic bags containing sheets of code words.

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©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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