By Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) - Thirteen people have been indicted in Miami in a crackdown on what U.S. authorities described on Thursday as a major cocaine smuggling ring with links to Venezuela and the Caribbean.
Federal officials said the indictments were part of efforts to stem a potential surge in drug trafficking through the Caribbean.
Drug smugglers have been on the lookout for alternatives to the U.S.-Mexican border for cocaine smuggling routes into the United States, said Miami-based U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer.
Nine members of the drug ring have been arrested so far including its purported leader, 51-year-old Roberto Mendez Hurtado, who was nabbed on Sunday in Ecuador, Ferrer said.
Mendez-Hurtado and his lieutenants were accused of flying hundreds of pounds (kilos) of cocaine from airstrips in the Apure region of Venezuela, near the Colombia border, to drop zones off the British Virgin Islands where they were picked up by speedboats and run into the United States.
Mendez-Hurtado's gang is also alleged to have used the airstrips as a takeoff point for cocaine-laden planes headed for Honduras and Guatemala, where the drugs were then shipped overland to the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities said.
"All the defendants today are facing a potential sentence of life," Ferrer told a news conference, referring to stiff penalties for crimes detailed in the 19-count indictment.
Mark Trouville, special agent in charge of the Miami field division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said the announcement highlighted again the prominent role Venezuela has played for years now in the international narcotics trade.
"Apure (in Venezuela) is the new north coast of Colombia," said Trouville, referring to parts of Colombia where ruthless drug lords once operated with impunity. "Apure is where the drugs are coming from now."
(Reporting by Tom Brown; editing by Pascal Fletcher and Christopher Wilson)