Court sentences drug couriers to five years of imprisonment

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Source Today Newspaper

GREAT BAY – The Court in First  Instance sentenced three cocaine smugglers yesterday to 5 of imprisonment each, after demands by the public prosecutor of 8,7 and 6 years.

The Coast Guard caught Danny Omer Griffith Vicente (25), a fisherman from the French side of the island, Luis Reyes (50) and Darwin José Cedeno (31) on the evening of January 21 at sea south of Statia in a small vessel. On board, officers found 249.7 kilos (gross weight) of cocaine.

The public prosecutor noted that the shipment has a value of $1,800 per kilo in Colombia, $30,000 per kilo in New York City and between $60,000 and $70,000 per kilo in the Netherlands.

Thus the street value of the shipment in the target market – North America – was a bit above $7.4 million. In Europe, the cocaine would have yielded between $14.8 and $17.4 million.

Two of the defendants, Danny Griffith and Venezuelan Darwin Cedeno admitted to the court that they knew they were involved in something illegal. The third defendant, Luis Reyes claimed he had been asked to join a fishing trip and that he had never seen the drugs aboard the small fishing boat.

Cedeno, an unemployed miner from Venezuela said that he had been approached by a man who offered him money to transport a large amount of cash. He was taken blindfolded to a location where someone indeed showed him a sport bag of cash. Cedeno said he never realized it was about drugs, but that he had taken the offer because, as a father of seven children with an ageing mother and a father with serious health problems, he needed the money.

Griffith Vicente freely admitted that he had taken part because he needed the money. He said that he stood to receive $10,000 for skippering the boat. “I suspected it was something bad, but then, you don’t make $10,000 just like that with fishing. And I am a fisherman.”

Griffith Vicente declined to say who has asked him to do the transport. “I cannot answer that because I have a family,” he said.

The public prosecutor asked the court to sentence all three defendants for the possession of cocaine. St. Maarten law does not make a distinction between possessing and importing drugs.

The prosecutor said that Cedeno was the only one who had opened up. “He needed money and he thought this was about counterfeit money. He makes a reliable impression.”

The prosecutor did not have that impression from Griffith Vicente and Reyes. “I do not value the statements of Reyes very much. He knew he was involved in something illegal. I furthermore have the impression that Griffith is not telling us everything.”

The prosecutor said that in similar cases courts have sentenced defendant to between 6 and 8 years. He noted that Cedeno was the only one to express regrets and that this plays a role in his demand.

The prosecutor demanded 8 years of imprisonment against Griffith Vicente, 7 years against Reyes and 6 years against Cedeno.

Attorney Shaira Bommel said that her client Luis Reyes is an amateur fisherman. “If you do not know anything, how can you then open up?” she wondered. “He thought it was about counterfeit money and he had no knowledge whatsoever about the drugs.”

Bommel asked the court to acquit her client, adding that the exact weight of the shipment has not been established. She also noted that the demand is “extremely high:” in the Medina-case about the import of 1,483 kilos of cocaine, the suspect was sentenced to just 6 years.

Attorney Geert Hatzmann referred to the killing of police officer Ferry Bakx in Bonaire by a gang of Venezuelans to put the charges against his Venezuelan client Cedeno in perspective. “My client has been praised for his openness but I do not see that back in the prosecutor’s demand. It does not make sense to convict my client to 6 years. The detention conditions for foreigners in St. Maarten are tough. I suggest a maximum penalty of 4 years with 2 years suspended.”

Attorney Jairo Bloem said that the evidence against his client Griffith Vicente is too meager for a conviction. He noted that Griffith had spent 44 days in restrictive custody because investigators had to examine three sim-cards. “That is not justifiable.” Bloem pointed to several procedural violations and said that because of this the prosecution ought to be declared inadmissible. He also contested the Coast Guard’s authority to conduct controls and investigation in international waters.

The court denied the request to declare the prosecution inadmissible and noted that Griffith had been put lawfully in restrictive custody. The court also did not see any fault with the Coast Guard actions in international waters.

The judge noted thatCedeno and Griffith both knew they were up to something illegal. “It is not plausible that it did not enter you hear that there could be drugs involved,” he told the defendants. The judge furthermore noted that Reyes is not a fisherman but that he knew what was happening on the small boat.

In considering his verdict, the judge said that he stayed closer to the reasoning of attorney Bloem than to that of the public prosecutor. “I do not believe Cedeno,” he said.

“Griffith knew it was about cocaine; I have not caught him telling any les and these are not the men justice is looking for. However, couriers are an indispensible link. Because he gave more weight to the defendants’ personal circumstances than the prosecutor did, the judge arrived at a sentence below the prosecution’s demand: 5 years of imprisonment for each of the three defendants.