SMUGGLING

Drug trafficking was rife aboard Spanish navy ship, says crew member

Sailors arrested after discovery of 127 kilos of cocaine aboard the ‘Elcano’ give testimony

The 'Juan Sebastián Elcano' after it docked in Cádiz last July.
The 'Juan Sebastián Elcano' after it docked in Cádiz last July.ROMÁN RÍOS / EFE

One of three men arrested for allegedly smuggling cocaine aboard a Spanish navy training ship has told the judge investigating the case that it was widely known aboard the vessel that crew members were trafficking and consuming drugs.

Francisco Ramón Martínez was the first suspect in the case – two others later followed– to speak to investigators about the 127-kilogram cocaine shipment seized at the time of their arrests on board the Juan Sebastián Elcano when it was docked in Pontevedra, northwestern Spain, in summer 2014.

In May 2014, when the ‘Elcano’ was in New York, sailors gave cocaine to dealers in the Bronx in exchange for €9,000

On November 2, Martínez testified before a military judge that during a stopover in the Colombian port city of Cartagena in April 2014, he and fellow crew member Manuel Fontao bought four kilograms of cocaine that they stashed aboard the ship in a tank used for storing human waste.

In May 2014, when the Spanish tall ship was in New York, the pair handed the cocaine over to dealers in the Bronx in exchange for €9,000 – half the amount they had been promised.

Another crew member, Jimmy Vanoni, has also confessed to transporting three kilograms of cocaine from Cartagena to New York in return for $15,000. He told the authorities that there were no controls checking crew members who left or boarded the vessel, and that they didn’t have to pass through customs at any of the ports they stopped in.

Aware of the opportunity this security lapse presented, Colombian drug traffickers reportedly used up to 50 crew members in their smuggling operations, according to Fontao. He has also claimed that drug use was rife aboard the vessel.

“From the moment we started training, everybody knew that the Elcano was used for trafficking drugs,” said another crew member, José Cascallar.

From the moment we started training, everybody knew that the ‘Elcano’ was used for trafficking drugs” Sailor José Cascallar

Fontao told the authorities that he was immediately aware that crew members were high when he began training.

Martínez said drug use was “discreet” but “evident,” adding that he had “personally observed widespread use of cocaine and other substances” aboard the ship.

The man at the center of the drug smuggling ring has only been identified as Manolo, or el Naca, a civilian who was employed as a cook on the ship for 18 years. He reportedly told others that they would have to pay him a commission if they smuggled drugs, and also acted as an intermediary with buyers in New York.

Manolo is the only one of the seven men arrested last year who is still in prison.

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The latest man to be detained, Cascallar, has been released after giving a statement to authorities on November 19. He denies having made any money from drug smuggling, but reportedly told others where to hide drugs to avoid detection by sniffer dogs.

After more than a year in prison, Martínez, Vanoni, and Fontao were released on bail last month and will likely receive shorter sentences in exchange for their cooperation. The public prosecutor’s office said that US authorities could request their extradition.

The entire case has tarnished not only the reputation of the Juan Sebastián Elcano – regarded as a floating symbol of the Spain brand – but also that of the Spanish navy and government.

The vessel has a crew of 23 officers, 22 NCOs and 139 seamen.

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