Venezuelan national Johan Garcia Suarez, 33, one of 11 Venezuelan nationals apprehended at sea off St. Croix, pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiring to possess with intent to distribute over five kilograms of cocaine while on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.
According to court documents, on the evening of September 25, 2019, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley intercepted a suspicious 55-foot vessel named La Gran Tormenta displaying Venezuelan nationality indicia approximately 38 nautical miles south of St. Croix. Occupants of the La Gran Tormenta did not reply to Donald Horsley’s efforts to engage in the questioning of the crew, and reportedly changed course and jettisoned packages. The Donald Horsley crew members later retrieved two bales from the water. The two jettisoned bales contained packages with brick-shaped objects, which were subsequently laboratory tested and found to contain approximately 49 kilograms of cocaine hydrocholoride (powder cocaine), according to a release from U.S. Attorney for the Virgin Islands Gretchen Shappert.
After requesting and receiving permission from Venezuela to stop the vessel, Coast Guard personnel attempted a right of visit boarding, which was ineffective because the crew on the La Gran Tormenta disregarded Coast Guard personnel’s instructions. Eventually, Coast Guard personnel reportedly obtained control of the ship through use of an “entanglement tactic” which stopped the vessel’s engine. A Coast Guard counter-drug boarding team encountered 11 persons, including the defendant.
Johan Garcia Suarez’s sentencing date has yet to be scheduled. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
The other ten defendants are scheduled for trial on July 18 in federal court. They face a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life if convicted.