Just Say Uncle

The DEA's "Twin Oceans" hooked a big fish, but can they reel it in?

Part of the government's case against him is that he was on a vessel in the Caribbean not far from another vessel that had cocaine aboard. Investigators said the two vessels were going to exchange cargo before they were stopped. Prosecutors also told Dunn, through his court-appointed attorney, that they had incriminating photographs of him. If it's a bluff, Dunn can't afford to call it. "When you don't have enough money to afford a lawyer to defend your rights, you are left to the mercy of the government," he says.

Dunn could have ordered his attorney to take his case to trial, but based on federal sentencing guidelines, a jury conviction could land him a ten-year sentence on each count in his indictment. Federal prosecutors offered a deal: He could plead guilty, and they'd recommend a sentence of five years and eight months. Dunn took it.

"The system is set up for them to win," Dunn wrote to New Times, "and if you fight the government, you become its No. 1 enemy and it can destroy you completely."

One of the boats Rayo allegedly used to smuggle drugs.
Courtesy of DEA
One of the boats Rayo allegedly used to smuggle drugs.

One defense attorney whose client had a minor role in Rayo's network, like Dunn's, says he hopes his client develops the "intestinal fortitude" to press for a trial rather than take the plea deal the government has offered.

Meantime, it will soon be two years since Pablo Rayo was arrested, and Rayo still has yet to leave Brazil. The country's extradition treaty allows it to send drug smugglers to the United States, but only after they've been tried in Brazil.

It's difficult to gauge how successful the Rayo case will be in the context of the government's global mission to minimize the amount of drugs that come to America. The premise of investigations like this one, says DEA spokesman Steve Robertson, is "to cut off one of the major means of transportation for cocaine producers."

Producers can be expected to forge a new path to the U.S., but that may be an expensive, time-consuming endeavor that could crimp the supply of cocaine, which would then drive up the price, making it less readily available. That's the theory, anyway.

Still, it took almost a year after the Twin Oceans bust for the street price of cocaine in America to rise, from about $92 per gram up to about $100. And when the price made a big leap a year ago, up to $120, and now to nearly $140, a DEA analysis attributed that trend not to the Twin Oceans bust or those of other high-ranking cartel leaders or paramilitary figures but rather to efforts by Mexico's Calderon administration to seize cocaine before it comes across the Texas border.

The DEA, which has been chastised in the media for heralding a kingpin bust only to concede that it led to the emergence of a new kingpin, has moderated its language in recent years.

There is no eradicating America's drug problem, but the agency can at least make an example of those who profit from it.

"These drug-trafficking organizations make so much money, they are so arrogant and cause so much violence, in Colombia and now in Mexico... they think they're above the law," Robertson says.

"These are criminals with no respect for fellow human beings, and after they get punished, maybe it leads the next guy to ask himself whether he really wants to get into this line of work."

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