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US Seeks to Break Up Drug Ring

FILE - Colombia National Police Chief Rodolfo Palomino walks on seized packages of cocaine displayed for a press briefing in Cartagena, April 10, 2014. U.S. and Colombian authorities have issued warrants for 29 suspects accused of smuggling cocaine.

U.S. authorities issued arrest warrants Thursday for 29 suspects in an alleged drug ring accused of smuggling cocaine and laundering money from Venezuela to the United States.

Federal agents and Colombian law enforcement authorities simultaneously executed the warrants in the U.S. state of Florida and territory of Puerto Rico as well as Colombia.

Last month, a federal grand jury in Puerto Rico issued a 23-count indictment against the group. Six were arrested in Colombia on Thursday, where three more are wanted. All nine will be extradited to Puerto Rico, where they will be tried, the U.S. Justice Department said.

Twelve of the suspects were arrested in Puerto Rico. At least two of the suspects already were serving sentences in federal prison, The Associated Press reported.

All suspects are named in a Justice Department news release.

The traffickers used speedboats to ship drugs from Venezuela to the island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico’s east coast. 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 also were 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.

3 arrested in Miami

In separate drug cases, three men arrested in Miami earlier this month 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 agent defected

Venezuelan officials this week confirmed that former security agent Leamsy Salazar has defected 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 Miami-based El Nuevo Herald.

The United States in recent years has stepped up pressure on Venezuela's military, accusing it of colluding in drug smuggling. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro denies his government has ties to the drugs trade and calls such accusations an effort to undermine his government.

Some information for this reported was provided by The Associated Press.