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Special Event

U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Counterparts From Other Nations Announce Developments in Large Anti-Drug Operation

Aired August 26, 2000 - 12:11 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: And now we're going to take you to Washington, where the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and counterparts from other nations are announcing developments in a large anti-drug operation. Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

RAYMOND KELLY, U.S. CUSTOMS SERVICE COMMISSIONER: The group is documented to have smuggled at least 68 tons of cocaine over a three- year period, over a third of which we have seized, the loads removed by one of the complex networks we have every seen. Retail value of the seized cocaine would exceed $1 billion in Europe, where most of these loads were headed. This drug armada was blown out of the water thanks to unprecedented corporation between Customs, the DEA and law enforcements agencies from around the world. In particular, the national police of Venezuela did an outstanding job. Their vital role in surveillance, in raiding storage sites, and then working with us on the endgame of this operation cannot be overstated. British custom provided the original intelligence for Operation Journey.

Law enforcement agencies from Albania, Belgium, Columbia, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Panama, Spain and Venezuela played key parts in this investigation, and I wants to acknowledge and thank them for their contributions.

Other federal agencies here in the U.S. also deserve a large share of the credit, and Admiral Bells (ph) will speak to you about the joint interagency force which helped carry out the boarding and the seizures of the ships. This investigation took off when customs developed key sources inside the De Le Vega (ph) group. Working with DEA, we received details that enabled to us to inform foreign authorities on major drugs shipments headed overseas. Notable among these was the seizure of the freighter China Breeze by a British Naval ship in a U.S. Coast Guard boarding party that south of Puerto Rico in May of 1999. The China Breeze was taken back to Houston, where it's four-ton load of cocaine was race revealed inside empty sewage tanks. That was followed by the seizure of the Pearl two in Amsterdam in December, with over two tons of cocaine on board. The Pearl Two's stash was found hidden in a secret compartment under the captain's quarters.

In the meantime, Customs and the DEA merged separate investigations that connected vessel procurements efforts in Europe with the De La Vega Operation. We brought our joint efforts under a single probe, and learned of a total of 10 freighters being used for drug runs to North America and Europe.

With evidence and seizures piling up, it was time to bring the case down. This journey know ended in disaster for a De La Vega and his associates when Venezuelan police, along with U.S. agents, raided the group's command, control and storage locations in the Oranoko (ph) River Delta, taking in another 10 tons of cocaine in numerous arrest. The impact of Operation Journey will be felt far and wide.

We wiped out a sprawling organization who's tentacles reached around the world. Massive amounts of cocaine will be kept off of the streets of Europe and America. And thanks to this global law enforcements effort, we now have a powerful new blueprint for fighting the international drug trade.

Deputy administrator Julio Mercado of the Drug Enforcement Administration will now over much offer a few comments, followed by Admiral David Bells of the joint interagency task force east.

After their comments, we'll take your questions, and then have a presentation on the details of the case.

It's now my pleasure to introduce deputy director Mercado -- Julio.

JULIO MERCADO, DEA DEPUTY ADMIN.: Good afternoon.

Operation Journey and law enforcement dealt a real crippling blow to a major drug transportation organization that smuggled multi-tons, like the commissioner said, of cocaine into at least 12 countries .

I am proud of the close cooperation by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Customs Service, the joint international task force and law enforcements agencies in the 11 countries that the commissioner mentioned.

Working together, we arrested 43 criminals involved in a multimillion Colombian-based transportation organization. The arrest included several top leaders, most notably Ivan De La Vega, who functioned as the CEO of a network, and his associates Lewis Novia (ph). Both are now in custody in Miami. Other high-level associates of this network were also arrested in Europe, and we have seized approximately 25 tons, like the commissioner said, and five commercial freighters over the course of this investigation.

These are basest results. In a few moments, you probably will get a pretty presentation from the -- about the case from the agents in Customs and DEA.

At this moment, I would like to discuss the significance of the operation. First, Operation Journey showed that the drug trade is without question a highly coordinated international conspiracy. Today, drug criminals operate with no borders. The organization targeted in Operation Journey employed an extensive worldwide network of criminals to smuggle drugs from the jungles of South America into cities in towns all across Europe and the United States.

Columbia drug lords relied on De Le Vega's organization as an efficient one-stop transportation service. De La Vega's network was responsible for smuggling shipments of cocaine out of Columbia, into Venezuela, to vessels waiting offshore throughout international waters, and ultimately, into a host of consumer countries.

Many of the ships seized during this investigation were destined for Europe, because of the growing and lucrative cocaine market there. Law enforcement has responded to these powerful multinational drug trafficking by adopting a likewise coordination, coordinated international approach.

This is the second significant point of Operation Journey, the growing network of international law enforcement corporation. Operation Journey is one of the best examples in recent memories of such a large number of law enforcement agencies working together around the world to attack a common goal, or a common enemy.

Throughout this accomplished investigation, we were able to track suspects, share intelligence that ultimately led to the dismantling of a very powerful drug-trafficking organization. The drug syndicates who control worldwide drug trafficking are far too powerful, far reaching and resourceful for one nation to fight alone. Operation Journey know showed that together, we can and we will level the playing field and achieve great success.

I need to offer my sincere thanks and appreciation to all of the law enforcements.

PHILLIPS: You are watching a joint press conference to announce the conclusion of Operation Journey, a multinational investigation targeted at a Colombian drug organization, specifically return by Ivan De La Vega. They mentioned the main drug lord that they were very satisfied that made the arrests. Forty-three arrests. They called it a crippling blow to the Colombian drug organization. More than $1 billion in cocaine was seized by law enforcement agencies with Customs and the DEA, multi-tons of cocaine, and the commercial ships to transport the multi-ton shipments of cocaine were going to Europe and the U.S. Once again, that's the conclusion of Operation Journey.

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