With the arrests Saturday of two cruise ship employees as their vessel docked in Manhattan, federal law enforcement officials revealed the existence of an unusual drug ring that they said used luxury ocean liners to funnel cocaine, hashish and marijuana from New York to the island of Bermuda.
These officials estimated that the operation, which involved slightly more than a dozen people with code names like "Fidel," "007," "Ratty" and "Puny," accounted for 25 percent to 50 percent of the illegal drugs flowing into Bermuda in recent years.And they said the method of smuggling was strikingly atypical, thrusting a high-stakes, illegal activity into an atmosphere associated with pleasure and escape from the grittier side of life.
"You never think that while you're on vacation, you're in the midst of serious drug smuggling," said Jodi Avergun, an assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting seven of the defendants in the case. "You think you're safe and secure on a cruise to Bermuda but, in fact, there are drug smugglers serving you lunch or making your meal."
Diane Ingalls, a spokeswoman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which was involved in the investigation, said that eight of the 13 people arrested since March in connection with the operation held jobs with Celebrity or Norwegian cruise lines, most of them in low-paying kitchen positions. Ingalls stressed that the cruise lines had cooperated fully in the investigation.
The remaining five defendants coordinated drop-offs and money transfers in either New York or Jamaica, law enforcement officials said. All have been charged with conspiracy to distribute narcotics; an additional three people are still being sought by investigators, Ingalls said.
Officials identified the mastermind of the operation as Delroy Andrews, 43, of Brooklyn. Andrews, they said, orchestrated the transport of drugs from Jamaica to New York City and then to Bermuda.
Avergun said it was unclear whether the cruise line workers carrying drugs from New York to Bermuda and money from Bermuda back to New York had been recruited before or after they took jobs aboard the ships. But she said that ship workers in general attract less scrutiny, and go through less rigorous inspections, than tourists traveling the same route do.
Ingalls noted a second clever rationale behind the smuggling scheme. "You're losing a certain amount of overhead by using someone who has a legitimate means to be on the boat," she said.
The operation began to come to light two years ago, when one of those involved in it was spotted with drugs by Bermudian authorities and arrested. Using information he provided, Bermudian and American authorities conducted surveillances, wiretaps and posed undercover as drug customers in Bermuda to catch others involved in the scheme.
The couriers usually carried relatively small quantities of the drugs, sometimes tucking them inside thickly folded bedsheets and then carrying them off the ships in shopping bags during the hours or days that the vessels were docked in Bermuda, officials said.