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Sep 28, 2004

Belize flag vessel busted for cocaine

It was one of the biggest international drug busts of the year: twenty-six thousand pounds of cocaine. And the narcotics were found buried beneath a load of fish and ice on a Belize flagged vessel. The fishing boat in question, the San Jose, was boarded on September twenty-second by U.S. coast guard personnel operating off a U.S. navy frigate about five hundred miles west of the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific. A ship operating in the same area–not flying the Belize flag–was also busted, with thirty thousand pounds of cocaine aboard. The crews of both vessels were Colombians and it is believed that they were headed from that country to the U.S. West Coast. According to Angelo Mouzouropoulos, head of IMMARBE, Belize’s merchant shipping registry, his office and the government of Belize worked with U.S. authorities from September twenty-second and, since the San Jose was in international waters, granted the Coast Guard permission to board. Although the two ships flew different flags, investigations show that they shared similar Ecuadorian ownership. The San Jose is one of two hundred and seventy fishing vessels flying the Belize flag out of a total of around twelve hundred Belizean registered vessels. Apart from carrying its illegal cargo, the San Jose was properly registered and licensed to fish in the area. In addition to the criminal charges faced by the crew, the owners have already been fined fifty thousand dollars by IMMARBE and face further investigations under the registry’s zero tolerance policy. Over the last five years Mouzouropoulos says that an average of two Belizean registered vessels have been discovered smuggling drugs each year. The twenty-six thousand pounds of cocaine seized on Friday represents over ten percent of the total amount of cocaine–two hundred and forty thousand pounds–seized by the U.S. coast guard in all of 2003. The cocaine seized from the San Jose was estimated to be worth over eight hundred million U.S. dollars.

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