Just Say Uncle

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With a big fish such as Rayo, that means you also end up with a lot of little fish, like the two Panamanians who worked for Nautipesca. They were indicted in the case against Rayo and now have been extradited to the United States to stand trial in Miami. Or Colombian Jair Chantre Moreno, who ran shopping errands for a Rayo associate, spending the Rayo organization's money, a money-laundering offense. Or Fidel Sandoval Rosero, a mechanic who was paid to service boats in the Rayo organization allegedly used to transport drugs, leading Sandoval to plead guilty. Or Ruben Menaca, a 47-year-old Colombian, also a mechanic, who pleaded guilty to having a role in importing about nine tons of cocaine in two shipments and was sent to prison for just under six years.

None of these names likely rang a bell for anyone who may have seen them in Latin American news accounts of Rayo organization busts, not even Rayo's — with one exception: Everyone knew Rayo's childhood buddy, Freddy Rincon, the star soccer player.

Retired from the game, Rincon invested $200,000 in Nautipesca, the Panamanian fishing and boating store — "the worst investment I have ever made," he said after he was arrested in Brazil. He knew nothing of Rayo's links to drugs, he said. Out on bond, he is now awaiting trial in Panama.

If there were more than 330 pounds of coke on the same boat as fisherman Yohibel Jose Dunn Aguilera, he should have known. Dunn pleaded guilty to his role in the Rayo organization and was sent to a federal prison in Pine Prairie, Louisiana. His case perhaps best illustrates the harrowing experiences of the Rayo defendants.

A native of Venezuela, Dunn had been working for Costa Rica-based company Agencia Maritima, owned by Mars Micolta. His crew, full of fellow Venezuelans, cruised the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean trawling for tuna, grouper, and shark.

Like Rayo, Dunn was arrested in the hours before dawn on May 16, 2006. After a year in a Central American jail, in what he called "subhuman conditions," he was extradited to the United States and arraigned in Miami. Posting bond here was out of the question; Dunn has nowhere to stay in the U.S. even if he were released, which makes him a flight risk. Even if he were allowed to post bond, he probably couldn't raise enough money, not from what's left of the $700 he made from fishing in a good month.

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 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.

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Thomas Francis