U.S. indicts 13 in Caribbean drug ring bust

MIAMI,  (Reuters) – Thirteen people have been  indicted in Miami in a crackdown on what U.S. authorities  described today as a major cocaine smuggling ring with  links to Venezuela and the Caribbean.
Federal officials said the indictments were part of efforts  to stem a potential surge in drug trafficking through the  Caribbean.
Drug smugglers have been on the lookout for alternatives to  the U.S.-Mexican border for cocaine smuggling routes into the  United States, said Miami-based U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer.
Nine members of the drug ring have been arrested so far  including its purported leader, 51-year-old Roberto Mendez  Hurtado, who was nabbed on Sunday in Ecuador, Ferrer said.
Mendez-Hurtado and his lieutenants were accused of flying  hundreds of pounds (kilos) of cocaine from airstrips in the  Apure region of Venezuela, near the Colombia border, to drop  zones off the British Virgin Islands where they were  picked up  by speedboats and run into the United States.
Mendez-Hurtado’s gang is also alleged to have used the  airstrips as a takeoff point for cocaine-laden planes headed  for Honduras and Guatemala, where the drugs were then shipped  overland to the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities said.
“All the defendants today are facing a potential sentence  of life,” Ferrer told a news conference, referring to stiff  penalties for crimes detailed in the 19-count indictment.
Mark Trouville, special agent in charge of the Miami field  division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said the  announcement highlighted again the prominent role Venezuela has  played for years now in the international narcotics trade.
“Apure (in Venezuela) is the new north coast of Colombia,”  said Trouville, referring to parts of Colombia where ruthless  drug lords once operated with impunity. “Apure is where the  drugs are coming from now.”

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