- The Coast Guard offloaded nearly 38,000 pounds of cocaine on Thursday – a haul worth $US500 million.
- The past three years have seen some of the service’s highest levels of seizures on record.
- The Coast Guard and its partners are trying to catch traffickers on the high seas, where the cargoes are larger and more vulnerable.
FT. LAUDERDALE, Florida – While scouring the waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean over the past several months, the crew of the US Coast Guard cutter James seized 19,000 pounds of cocaine.
The James’s haul was about half of the 38,00o pounds of cocaine its crew offloaded on Thursday in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Those drugs were seized in 19 interdictions at sea carried about by six US Coast Guard ships – nine of which were conducted by the James.
The total haul had an estimated wholesale value of about $US500 million.
“Operating in the dark of night, often under challenging conditions, these outstanding Coast Guard men and women … driving our boats, flying our armed helicopter swiftly interdicted drug smugglers operating in a variety of vessels used to move these tons of narcotics, from the simple outboard panga to commercial fishing vessels to low-profile high-speed vessels and even semi-submersibles designed to evade detection,” Capt. Jeffrey Randall, the commander of the James, said Thursday.
The drugs were unloaded just a few weeks after the end of fiscal year 2018 on September 30. During that fiscal year, the Coast Guard intercepted just over 458,000 pounds of cocaine – the second highest total ever. Fiscal year 2017 set the record with 493,000 pounds seized, topping the previous record of 443,000 pounds set in fiscal year 2016.
The increase in seizures comes amid growing cocaine production in Colombia, the world’s largest producer of the drug and the main supplier to the US market. Production of coca, the base ingredient in cocaine, has steadily risen since hitting a low in 2012.
Colombia is the only South American country that borders both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, but most of the cocaine it sends to the US takes a westerly route.
“In 2017, at least 84 per cent of the documented cocaine departing South America transited the Eastern Pacific,” the US Drug Enforcement Administration said in its most recent National Drug Threat Assessment.
“Shipments around the Galapagos Islands increased to 17 per cent of overall flow in 2017, up from four per cent in 2016 and one per cent in 2015,” the DEA report found. “In 2017, 16 per cent of cocaine moved through the Caribbean, nine per cent travelling through the Western Caribbean and seven per cent through the Eastern Caribbean.”
The Coast Guard’s activity in the eastern Pacific, where it works with other US agencies and international partners, is meant to stanch the drug flow at its largest and most vulnerable point: at sea.
“The Coast Guard’s interdiction efforts really employ what I call a push-out-the-border strategy. We’re pushing our land border 1,500 miles deep into the ocean here a little bit, and that’s where we find the success taking large loads of cocaine down at sea,” Adm. Karl Shultz, the commandant of the Coast Guard, said Thursday during the offload.
“When we take down drugs at sea it reduces the violence. It maximizes the impact. When these loads land in Mexico, in Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, they get distributed into very small loads, very hard to detect, and there’s associated violence, corruption, instability,” Shultz added. “It’s just very hard to govern in that space when there’s that much associated disarray here that surrounds these drugs, so we’re really proud of the ability to push that border out.”
Coast Guard officials have said after having success against self-propelled semi-submersibles, which are like subs but typically can’t fully submerge, the service has seen an uptick in the use of low-profile vessels, which look similar to speedboats but sit lower in the water, often with their decks right at water level.
“The low-profile vessel, it’s evolutionary,” Schultz told Business Insider in an interview earlier this year. “The adversary will constantly adapt their tactics to try to thwart our successes,” he said, adding that the increase “reflects the adaptability” of traffickers.
Asked on Thursday about smuggling trends the Coast Guard has observed above and below the water, Schultz said again pointed to increased use of low-profile vessels.
“We’re seeing these low-profile vessels now, which is a similar construct [to semi-submersibles] but with outboard engines,” Schultz told reporters. “They paint them seafoam green, blue. They’re hard to detect … from the air.”
Semi-submersibles and low-profile vessels are pricey, running $US1 million to $US2 million each. But the multiton cargoes they carry can fetch hundreds of millions of dollars, making the sophisticated vessels an expense traffickers can afford.
Schultz and Randall both touted the Coast Guard’s work with its US and foreign partners.
Claire Grady, third in command at the Homeland Security Department, put the service’s high-seas interdictions squarely within the government’s broader efforts to go after drugs and the smugglers bringing them north.
“We must take actions abroad in addition to our actions at home. This merging of the home game and the away game represents the layered defence that we employ to keep the drugs off our streets and dismantle the criminal organisations that wreak violence and instability,” Grady said aboard the James on Thursday.
“The Coast Guard is critical to this effort, and the seized narcotics that you see behind me represents a major victory.”