WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S.
Customs Service, and the Joint Interagency Task Force-East
(JIATF-East) today announced the conclusion of "Operation Journey," a
two-year, multi-national initiative against a Colombian drug
transportation organization that used commercial vessels to haul
multi-ton loads of cocaine to 12 countries, most of them in Europe and
North America.

The investigation, which involved authorities from 12 nations and
three continents, has resulted in the arrest of 43 individuals,
including the alleged leader of the maritime drug transportation
organization, Ivan De La Vega, and several of his subordinates. A
Colombian citizen, De La Vega was arrested in Maracaibo, Venezuela, on
Aug. 16, and turned over to U.S. custody. He faces federal drug
charges in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Since its inception, Operation Journey has resulted in the seizure of
22,489 kilograms of cocaine or nearly 25 tons of cocaine. On the
streets of Europe, this cocaine could generate roughly $1 billion at
the retail level. The location of these seizures ranged from the
Netherlands to Venezuela. The operation has also resulted in the
seizure of commercial shipping vessels, go-fast boats, and
communications equipment.

The operation began as separate investigations by the DEA Country
Office in Athens, Greece, the Customs Special Agent-in-Charge office
in Houston, together with major input from European law enforcement
agencies and JIATF-East. Over time, numerous domestic and
international agencies joined the operation. Eventually, all merged
their cases into a single probe. Prosecutors from the Narcotic and
Dangerous Drug Section of the U.S. Justice Department's Criminal
Division were brought in to provide key legal guidance. The Justice
Department coordinated with Customs, the DEA, and officials from other
nations to develop the prosecution strategy to dismantle this

Foreign authorities played critical roles in Operation Journey, making
numerous arrests and several large seizures. The operation would not
have been possible without the efforts of law enforcement agencies
from Albania, Belgium, Colombia, France, Greece, Italy, the
Netherlands, Panama, Spain, Great Britain, and Venezuela.

"Crime knows no borders and has become truly transnational in the
Millennium," said DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall. "In response, law
enforcement has forged the international alliances required to cripple
sophisticated transnational criminal organizations like De La Vega's.
Operation Journey is only the beginning. All of us gathered here today
are dedicated to building upon our success in this operation and
bringing all of these dangerous criminals to justice."

According to U.S. Customs Service Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly: "This
investigation was unique for the incredible volume of cocaine it kept
off the streets of America and Europe. This case also demonstrates
what can be achieved when nations of the world work together against a
common enemy. Operation Journey should serve as a model for
international law enforcement cooperation."

The organization targeted by Operation Journey served as a one-stop
shipping service for Colombian cartels interested in moving cocaine
via maritime vessels to U.S. and European markets. Based in Colombia
and Venezuela, the organization used a fleet of 8-to-10 commercial
freighters capable of hauling huge loads of cocaine anywhere in the
world. Some of these ships were owned by shipping firms in Greece and
other nations, while others were owned by this Colombian organization.

Typically, the cocaine was transported from Colombia via land or air
to the Orinoco River Delta on Venezuela's northeast coast. Upon
arrival, the cocaine was stashed by the organization in remote jungle
hideouts. From these camps, go-fast boats hauled the cocaine to
commercial ships stationed offshore. Once onboard, the cocaine was
often concealed in secret compartments constructed for smuggling
purposes. Upon reaching its intended destination, the cocaine was then
offloaded to waiting go-fast boats or other vessels and ferried ashore
to locations in Europe and the United States.

To guard against law enforcement, the organization used several
techniques. Often, the organization conducted "dry runs" in which the
ships only delivered legitimate cargo. On other occasions, the ships
hauled legitimate cargo and cocaine. Members of the organization also
used sophisticated equipment to communicate in code and frequently
changed cell phones to prevent their conversations from being

Nevertheless, investigators from around the globe were able to
penetrate the highest levels of the transportation organization.
Working with foreign counterparts, the DEA developed information on
the European connections, while Customs agents developed information
on the South American connections. As a result, investigators were
able to gain specific information about cocaine shipments leaving for
Europe and other locations. Agents passed this information to foreign
and domestic authorities, enabling them to make arrests and seizures,
some of which are detailed below:

-- Based on information provided by Operation Journey, a British naval
vessel under the control of JIATF-East stopped the Panamanian-flagged
freighter, China Breeze, near Puerto Rico in May 1999. The China
Breeze was en route to Amsterdam. A U.S. boarding party found 3,880
kilograms of cocaine hidden inside inoperable sewage tanks of the
vessel. The China Breeze was escorted to Texas and her crew arrested.
In Nov. 1999, three crewmembers, including the captain, were convicted
of federal drug charges. Two other crewmembers pleaded guilty to
federal drug charges. Prior to this shipment, the China Breeze had
shipped some 10 tons of cocaine to locations in Europe and the United

-- Based on information provided by Operation Journey, Dutch
authorities seized the Panamanian-flagged vessel, Pearl II, upon her
arrival in Amsterdam in December 1999. Inside the vessel, authorities
found 2,006 kilograms of cocaine in a secret compartment under the
captain's quarters. The compartment measured five feet, by five feet,
by 60 feet. Dutch authorities made 14 arrests in connection with the
seizure. Prior to this shipment, the Pearl II had shipped
approximately 11 tons of cocaine to locations in the United States.

In the end, U.S. agents were able to document the movement of at least
68 tons of cocaine by this organization over a three-year period. At
the retail level, this amount of cocaine could generate roughly $3
billion in Europe. Several of these cocaine shipments were
intercepted. Most had occurred before agents learned about them.

Operation Journey culminated during the past two weeks with
enforcement actions in Venezuela and Europe. As a result of a
collaborative international effort, Venezuelan authorities raided the
command-and-control structure of the organization, using roughly 200
anti-drug officers, as well has an array of helicopters, airplanes,
and boats.

-- During the initial raid, Venezuelan authorities arrested Ivan De La
Vega and Luis Antonio Navia. De La Vega was arrested pursuant to a
provisional arrest warrant prepared by U.S. federal agents in Houston.
Navia is a Cuban national with U.S. residence status. He is a U.S.
Customs fugitive wanted on prior federal drug charges. Both were
turned over to U.S. authorities. On August 19, U.S. agents flew the
pair to the Southern District of Florida, where they face federal drug

-- As part of the takedown, a U.S. Naval vessel stopped the
Maltese-flagged ship, the Suerte I, off the coast of Grenada on August
17. A U.S. boarding party searched the vessel, but found no cocaine.
U.S. authorities are working to seize the vessel as part of the
organization's fleet. The Suerte I is expected to be escorted to
Houston. Several days before the boarding, Venezuelan authorities had
encountered two boats en-route to the Suerte I, both loaded with
cocaine. Several suspects jumped ship and fled into the jungle. The
search for these suspects continues.

-- Meanwhile, Venezuelan authorities assisted by U.S. agents began
raiding cocaine storage locations in the Orinoco River Delta. A
night-time raid on the first jungle camp yielded several go-fast boats
and communications equipment, but no cocaine. On August 17,
authorities raided a second storage site and found 3,900 kilograms of
cocaine. Numerous suspects were arrested in this raid. On August 22,
Venezuelan authorities raided a third storage site and found 2,400
kilograms of cocaine. On August 23, they found 2,500 more kilograms at
a fourth storage camp. It is believed that these last two shipments
were destined for the Suerte I.

-- During this same time period, authorities in Europe made several
arrests. Earlier this week, authorities in Greece conducted raids and
made 8 arrests in connection with shipping firms linked to the
Colombian organization. There were also two arrests made in Italy and
another made in France.