Soldier pleads guilty to drug smuggling charges

A U.S. soldier who was stationed in Colombia to help fight drug trafficking pleaded guilty Thursday for his role in an alleged scheme to smuggle cocaine into the United States using military planes.

Army Staff Sgt. Kelvin Irizarry-Melendez and three other soldiers from the 204th Military Intelligence Battalion were accused of smuggling cocaine from a U.S. base in Colombia. All four were arrested earlier this year.

A military judge did not initially accept the plea deal reached with Irizarry-Melendez, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and wrongful importation of cocaine. As part of the plea deal, Irizarry-Melendez acknowledged that he helped take an unspecified amount of money to Colombia.

The hearing was to continue later Thursday. Irizarry-Melendez also has been accused of making a false official statement, illegal use of cocaine and illegal use and transportation of weapons. The status of those charges was unclear Thursday.

In a deposition obtained by The Associated Press, accused ringleader Staff Sgt. Daniel Rosas told investigators that the soldiers smuggled more than 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of cocaine with relative ease.

Rosas told investigators that U.S. customs agents subjected the soldiers to only cursory searches and never searched equipment shipped into the country.

Rosas, who is scheduled to stand trial later this month, told investigators that he and Irizarry-Melendez were responsible for the drug smuggling, with the other two soldiers concentrating mostly on fronting money to buy the drugs.

Irizarry-Melendez told the judge Thursday that he assisted the operation but didn't smuggle drugs or money.

He is the second soldier to face a judge in the case. Spec. Francisco Rosa pleaded guilty last month to a series of charges and was sentenced to five years in prison, a reduction in rank to private and a bad-conduct discharge. Another U.S. soldier is scheduled for trial in November, AP reported.

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