SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Officials in Puerto Rico and Colombia arrested 17 members of an alleged drug ring on Thursday accused of money laundering and smuggling cocaine from Venezuela to the United States.
Last month a federal grand jury in Puerto Rico issued a 23-count indictment against the group of 29. Six were arrested in Colombia on Thursday, where three more are wanted. All will be extradited to Puerto Rico, where officials are searching for the remaining nine, said Homeland Security spokesman Ivan Ortiz.
The traffickers used speedboats to ship drugs from Venezuela to the island of Vieques, off the east coast of Puerto Rico. The group laundered the proceeds to Colombia through money transfer businesses and banks in Panama and China, according to a U.S. Department of Justice statement.
Couriers were also used to smuggle hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash back to Colombia, it said.
Officials estimate the group could have imported at least eight tons of cocaine between 2010 and 2012.
In separate drug cases, three men were arrested in Miami earlier this month and are awaiting trial for allegedly importing or planning to distribute cocaine and the club drug MDMA, or ecstasy, for Venezuelan contacts.
Drug smuggling from Latin American through the Caribbean has boomed in recent years after the United States stepped up patrols of its Mexican border following drug-related violence.
“We went from 30 to 35 metric tons of cocaine a few years ago to now close to 100 metric tons,” said Vito Guarino, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Caribbean division.
The routes are similar to those used by the so-called “Cocaine Cowboys” who ran drugs from Latin American to the United States in boats and small airplanes in the 1980s and 1990s.
Half of the increase, Guarino said, originates from Venezuela, where high-ranking government and military officials have been accused of running drug cartels.
Venezuelan officials this week confirmed the defection of a former security agent, Leamsy Salazar, to the United States. Salazar has accused Venezuela’s National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello of running a cocaine-smuggling ring, according to Spanish newspaper ABC and the Miami-based El Nuevo Herald.
The United States in recent years has stepped up pressure on Venezuela's military which it accuses of colluding in drug smuggling. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro denies his government has ties to the drugs trade and calls such accusations a smear campaign led by Washington to undermine his government.
(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami and Reuters in San Juan; Editing by David Adams and Lisa Shumaker)