- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2000

A 17-day undercover drug operation involving the United States and 25 Caribbean, Central and South American countries has resulted in the arrest of 2,331 suspected drug smugglers and the seizure or destruction of more than 10,000 kilograms of cocaine.

The investigation, known as "Operation Conquistador," was led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and assisted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the U.S. Coast Guard.

It began March 10 in Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Surinam, Trinidad & Tobago, Montserrat, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, St. Martin, British Virgin Islands, Barbuda, Grenada, Barbados, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Aruba, Curacao, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Arrests concluded on Sunday.

The seized or destroyed cocaine had a street value of between $80 million and $120 million, according to federal authorities. The investigation was announced yesterday in Washington by the DEA.

Michael S. Vigil, who heads the DEA field office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, said agents conducted 7,376 searches of residences, vehicles, vessels and aircraft during the operation to make the arrests and seize the cocaine along with 83 weapons, 17,340 rounds of ammunition and $132,772 in cash.

Mr. Vigil said agents also destroyed 94 cocaine laboratories, seized 55 kilos of heroin, 14 kilos of morphine base, seized or destroyed 362 metric tons of marijuana and 73 kilos of hash oil, seized 3,370 dosages of dangerous drugs and took possession of 128 tons of solid chemical precursors used in the production of drugs. (A kilogram is 2.2 pounds.)

He said the operation also netted 13 boats, 172 vehicles and $2.2 million in assets and property.

"Operation Conquistador was a great success in accomplishing its objectives of making progress toward a comprehensive regional strategy, facilitating the exchange of information, integrating all entities having counter-drug responsibilities and creating an operational nexus between the Caribbean and Central and South America," Mr. Vigil said.

"Although the arrests and seizures in Operation Conquistador were extremely impressive, they, however, were secondary to having the participating 26 countries working with one another," he said.

The objectives of the operation, the DEA said, were the establishment of a working relationship between the source and transit countries; the integration of counterdrug measures; the continued development of a comprehensive regional drug strategy; the exchange of information between the participating countries; the training of counterdrug measures; and the disruption of drug trafficking organizations in the Caribbean and other source countries.

The operation was coordinated from the DEA field office in San Juan, with forward command posts in Trinidad & Tobago and the Dominican Republic. The Coast Guard provided boats and aircraft for interdiction efforts throughout the Caribbean, while the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms conducted traces of all seized weapons.

"Of significance was that a sense of self-esteem in many of the smaller countries in the Caribbean was evident," said Mr. Vigil. "This was a result of 'opening the doors' to the international arena. Despite limited resources and infrastructure in many of the countries, they all responded with significant efforts and results."

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