An attorney for one of 11 Venezuelan fishermen charged with smuggling 121 pounds of cocaine has asked the court to permit a “duress defense,” arguing that armed pirates held the crew at gunpoint and threatened to kill their families if they didn’t deliver the drugs, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court.

Attorney Howard Phillips of Christiansted is representing Daniel Jesus Salazar Gonzalez, one of 11 crew members of the vessel Gran Tormenta charged with possession of a controlled substance on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspiracy, and destruction and attempt or conspiracy to destroy property subject to forfeiture, according to court records.

They each face a possible life sentence if convicted, and a maximum $10 million fine, according to a statement from U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert at the time of their arrests in 2019.

Phillips filed a motion on Feb. 12, asking the court to permit Salazar to present a defense to the jury that he only smuggled the cocaine while under duress.

The incident occurred on Sept. 25, 2019, when a Customs and Border Protection aircraft detected a vessel traveling northbound about 38 nautical miles south of St. Croix, according to an affidavit filed by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsely diverted to the scene and encountered the Gran Tormenta, a 55-foot fishing boat based out of Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, according to the affidavit. As the Coast Guard approached, the vessel changed course to the south and jettisoned a number of packages, which were later recovered, into the sea.

The Coast Guard requested and received permission from the Venezuelan government to stop and search the Gran Tormenta. Crew aboard the Horsely and the Coast Guard cutter Mohawk attempted to force the fishing boat to stop, according to the affidavit.

The boat crew disregarded a flash bang device, forcing the Coast Guard to use “entanglement tactics” to slow or stop boat engines. The action left the Gran Tormenta dead in the water.

Investigators found about 1,100 pounds of fish aboard, but no contraband.

Two jettisoned bales recovered from the water contained packages with bricks of cocaine with an estimated weight of 40 kilograms per bale, according to the affidavit. Once federal authorities intercepted the vessel they were told that contraband was on board because several masked men armed with assault weapons threatened to kill or harm the crew, the captain, and all the crews’ families if the defendants did not deliver the four packages to certain GPS coordinates.

“The crew agreed to do so to avoid serious injury or death,” according to the motion filed by Phillips.

Phillips requested an evidentiary hearing, and a judge has not yet ruled on the motion. A jury trial in the case is currently scheduled for July 12 in District Court on St. Croix.

— Contact Suzanne Carlson at 340-714-9122 or email