By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two Colombians ran a major heroin and cocaine smuggling operation to New York aboard the Royal Spanish Navy’s official training ship, paying thousands of dollars in bribes to midshipmen on the vessel, prosecutors said on Friday.
The two men were arrested late on Thursday in Colombia, said the office of New York’s special narcotics prosecutor, Bridget Brennan. They were charged with drug trafficking out of Cartagena in Colombia to supply New York City-based dealers.
In 2014, the two men paid $32,000 in bribes to Spanish midshipmen serving on the ship Juan Sebastian Elcano, authorities said. The four-masted vessel is the third largest tall ship in the world at 113 metres (371 feet).
The sailors picked up drugs in Cartagena during a six-month international voyage and delivered them to New York traffickers in April 2014, when the Juan Sebastian de Elcano was docked on Manhattan’s West Side, near the U.S.S. Intrepid aircraft carrier and museum.
The Juan Sebastian de Elcano frequently travels around the world. Authorities in Spain recovered nearly 280 pounds (127 kg) of cocaine from the ship after it returned from its trip to New York.
"A tourist attraction wherever it anchors, the ship served as the perfect cover for traffickers as it hopscotched across the Atlantic Ocean and back carrying its illicit cargo," Brennan said in a statement.
The charges against the two men center on a single shipment of approximately 17 pounds (8 kg) of heroin and cocaine. Authorities in New York expect the men, identified as Jorge Luis Hoayeck and Jorge Alberto Siado-Alvarez, to be extradited to the United States.
In 2014, seven other people were charged in the same smuggling ring, prosecutors said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Grant McCool)