Earlier this month, a decorated U.S. Army Special Forces soldier was arrested and charged in relation to an attempt to smuggle 90 pounds of cocaine from Colombia to Florida, but he may just be one player in a multimillion-dollar operation.
Army Master Sgt. Daniel Gould was arrested in Florida on August 13 in connection with an attempt to bring 90 pounds of cocaine into the U.S. on a military aircraft, defense officials told NBC News earlier this month. That haul would be worth several million dollars on U..S streets.
Gould was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group based at Eglin Air Force Base in northwest Florida. The group's area of responsibility is Latin America south of Mexico and the waters surrounding Central and South America. The unit is heavily involved in counter-drug operations in the region.
Gould is a veteran of Afghanistan, where he earned a Silver Star, the Army's third-highest award, for fending off an ambush in late 2008.
His arrest this month came after U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents found more than 90 pounds of cocaine in two backpacks aboard a military airplane that was bound for Florida. A military official told NBC News that a service member found the drugs and alerted authorities while the plane was still in Colombia.
Gould had been on vacation in the city of Cali in southwest Colombia the week prior to his arrest. He was already back in the U.S. when the drugs were discovered. Officials told NBC News that someone else put the two backpacks on the plane in Colombia but could not say whether that person was complicit in the smuggling attempt.
Now the investigation has reportedly turned to finding out what Gould was doing in Colombia during that vacation, whether others were involved in the smuggling attempt, and if this plot was undertaken by a larger network that has previously been linked to U.S. military personnel.
According to an August 26 report by Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, DEA investigators in Colombia are focusing on establishing who may have helped Gould acquire and transport the cocaine and whether military personnel involved in getting the drugs onto a plane knew what was going on.
Gould reportedly planned to leave Colombia on a commercial flight on August 12, connecting through Miami before arriving at Fort Walton Beach, which is just a few minutes' drive from Eglin Air Force Base.
However, according to El Tiempo, he changed his plans abruptly, switching his final destination to Pensacola, about an hour's drive from his original destination — which may indicate he was aware the drugs had been discovered.
Naval Special Warfare members during an exercise at in El Salvador, December 2, 2016.U.S. Army/Master Sgt. Kerri Spero
Investigators in Colombia are also trying to establish whether Gould had any connection to a trafficking network uncovered after the October 2011 arrest of Lemar Burton, a U.S. sailor caught with 11 pounds of cocaine in his luggage as he boarded a flight from Colombia to Europe.
Burton, assigned to Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily at the time, was in Colombia on personal leave, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota said after his arrest. His arrest prompted an investigation that uncovered an international smuggling ring operating out of airports in Cali and Bogota, moving drugs to Europe.
The ring relied on couriers, mainly foreigners, to carry drugs in parcels like suitcases with false bottoms. In the months after Burton's arrest, arrests were made in the U.S. and Colombia. Several other U.S. citizens were involved.
The drugs Burton and Gould were attempting to transport were sourced to Buenaventura and Tumaco, two main drug-producing regions on Colombia's Pacific coast that are part of the area in which Gould's unit was supporting anti-drug operations, according to El Tiempo.
A source with knowledge of the case told El Tiempo that Colombian authorities had not been given information about the investigation and that the military aircraft in question did not leave from a Colombian base. A military source told the paper that it was not clear which U.S. plane in Colombia was involved.
A DEA spokesman said the agency does not comment on ongoing investigations. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida said the office had no public information to offer about the case.
A spokesman for U.S. Army Special Operations Command, which oversees the 7th Special Operations Group, said a service member was being investigated and that the DEA was leading the probe but declined to comment further. The command has said it was cooperating with law enforcement on the case.
The investigation is ongoing and the nature of Gould's involvement remains uncertain, but U.S. military personnel getting involved in drug smuggling, particularly in Colombia, is not unheard of.
"It's not unusual for servicemen to take advantage of the drug trade to make a lot of money," said Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for DEA.
They "have access to these foreign countries. They have contacts, and a lot of times they actually smuggle the drugs on military aircraft," Vigil added, pointing to cases he was involved in during the 1970s in which U.S. service members smuggled heroin from Southeast Asia to the U.S., often carrying it in their personal luggage.
Authorities are trying to determine the timeline, the source of supply, and other people who may have been involved, Vigil said, adding that Gould may have gotten involved through his official duties or may have been connected with criminal groups, like remnants of the Cali or Valle de Cauca cartels, through personal contacts.
The smuggling attempt uncovered this month seemed "very sloppy," suggesting those involved were "just getting into the business," Vigil said.
"Anybody with a great knowledge would've used a different transportation method or covered their tracks a little better."
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