Military intelligence soldiers charged with drug smuggling.

Four U.S. Army military intelligence soldiers accused of running a smuggling operation that used military aircraft to bring more than 200 pounds of cocaine into the country over a two-year period for distribution in Texas and Louisiana will face general courts-martial at Fort Bliss, military officials said Friday.

According to military court documents, the soldiers bought cocaine in Colombia; transported it on military aircraft from the Apiay air base, east of Bogota, Colombia, to Biggs Army Airfield in El Paso; and then distributed it in the Texas cities of El Paso, San Antonio, Beaumont, Sonora and Sierra Blanca, as well as Lake Charles, La. The alleged smuggling occurred between April 2003 and March 2005.

Facing courts-martial are Staff Sgt. Daniel Rosas, 23; Staff Sgt. Victor J. Portales, 24; Spc. Francisco Rosa, 25; and Staff Sgt. Kelvin G. Irizarry-Melendez, 26. Fort Bliss officials wouldn't provide the soldiers' hometowns but said they are from Texas and Puerto Rico. Portales has family in Brownsville, and a person by Rosas' name has connections in Puerto Rico.

All are assigned to the 204th Military Intelligence Battalion, which is stationed at Fort Bliss.

"Their mission is to assist the Colombian government in surveillance and detection of drugs within the country," Fort Bliss spokeswoman Jean Offutt said. "It's a surveillance and intelligence unit."

Offutt said the soldiers were on regular rotations in and out of the country when they allegedly smuggled the drugs into the United States and carried thousands of dollars back to Colombia, apparently to pay for the drugs.

Colombian officials could not be reached for comment.

Rosas alone faces seven counts of importing illegal drugs. He allegedly brought in amounts that ranged from about 11 pounds to 44 pounds. The charges against him alone account for nearly 180 pounds of cocaine.

Also according to the military charge sheets, Rosas carried $224,000 back to the air base in Colombia in six trips from March 2004 to February 2005 as part of the smuggling operation. Portales and Irizarry-Melendez are accused of carrying $48,000 during a trip in late 2004.

Rosas and Irizarry-Melendez are charged with distributing cocaine. In eight counts, Rosas is accused of distributing more than 105 pounds of cocaine in Texas and Louisiana.

Planning for the operation allegedly began in March 2003. Portales and Irizarry-Melendez allegedly each put up $2,000 of their own money to buy cocaine, and Rosas is accused of putting up an unspecified amount of his own money to buy the drugs.

Rosas allegedly located a buyer at one point, and he is charged with distributing more than 4 pounds of cocaine at Fort Bliss and in San Antonio.

Six civilians are mentioned in the charges, but military officials had no further information on their status Friday.

The soldiers have been charged with conspiracy; making false official statements; wrongful use, possession, distribution or importation of cocaine; and damaging the good order and discipline of the armed forces.

Irizarry-Melendez and Rosas face courts-martial in early and late September, and Portales' court-martial will be in early October. A date for Rosas' trial has not been set.

General courts-martial allow the most severe punishments, which for these charges could include prison time, dishonorable discharge, reduction to a lowest enlisted grade, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and fines. The soldiers will have a choice between the military equivalent of a jury trial or a trial by military judge. The Fort Bliss commanding general can approve or disapprove the verdicts or the sentences.

[Source: By Chris Roberts, El Paso Times, US, 30Jul05]

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