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7 CHARGED IN COCAINE SEIZURE AT SEA

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Sept. 21, 2001 – Seven men from Colombia and the Domnican Republic picked up at sea early Thursday were charged in U.S. District Court Friday with conspiring to smuggle more than half a ton of cocaine into the United States.
The men, who appeared before Magistrate Judge Geoffrey Barnard on St. Thomas wearing orange prison jumpsuits, will be held without bail pending a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
Rufino Rodriguez Sanchez, Julio Rodriguez Valdez, Bautista Rodriguez-Rijo, Marco Aurelio Otalora, Huber Gomez Garcia, Julio Balbuena-Peru and Reginaldo Matos-Cueva were arrested early Friday after the two boats they were aboard were stopped near Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands, according to a court affidavit signed by Drug Enforcement Administration agent Mark McHugh.
In one of the boats, narcotics agents found 20 cocaine bales weighing more than 50 pounds each, McHugh stated in the affidavit. One estimate put the value of the cocaine at about $10 million.
Officials indicated that five of the men were from the Dominican Republic and two were from Colombia but did not identify the individuals by nationality.
About 11 p.m. Wednesday, U.S. Coast Guard officials contacted the DEA about a vessel sitting stationary in the water near the Saba Bank between Sint Maarten and the Virgin Islands. Smugglers use the area frequently for air drops of narcotics destined for waiting boats, McHugh stated in the affidavit. A Dutch naval vessel reported at the same time that a low-flying airplane was in the area, according to court documents.
The Coast Guard tracked the vessel by radar and positioned two cutters southeast of the Virgin Islands, and boats were dispatched by the British Virgin Islands police and U.S. National Park Service, McHugh wrote.
While the vessel was being tracked, a second suspect boat headed toward the first, and the two boats, running without lights, met up about 15 miles southeast of Norman Island, according to the court papers.
About 2:30 a.m. Thursday, Coast Guard personnel stopped the first boat and took the four men aboard into custody. They also found the 20 bales of cocaine on board the 30-foot vessel.
The other boat, a smaller, speedier vessel, attempted to flee. After a chase, officers from the B.V.I. police, Park Service and Coast Guard halted it and took the three men aboard into custody. Investigators found traces of cocaine on two of the men in that boat, McHugh wrote.

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