Coast Guard seizes sub filled with cocaine

Coast Guard crew members seized nearly 20 tons of cocaine off a submarine in international waters off the coast of Central and South America

By Carl Prine
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — She’d been hunting the smugglers for the entire morning, a helicopter wheeling above her pilot house as she steered the cutter Waesche through choppy waves and into the face of near-gale winds.

And then U.S. Coast Guard Seaman Spencer Lewis, 25, saw in the green churn of the Pacific Ocean the cockpit and exhaust pipe of what counter-narcotics agents call a “self-propelled semi-submersible” vessel, the sneakiest way to ship large cargoes of contraband cocaine.

“You do things with a purpose and then you get to see the results of all your hard training come to fruition,” said Lewis, recalling the Sept. 6 seizure of a narco-sub carrying cocaine toward the United States.

The Waesche crew went to battle stations while boarding parties on small raid boats raced across the waves toward the narco-sub. Scrambling aboard, they found a hold eight feet deep stuffed with cocaine — and five suspected smugglers scuttling the vessel, the seawater gurgling in, according to the Coast Guard.

Pumping out the water, the Waesche team managed to unload 2.8 tons of cocaine — worth $73 million to narcotics wholesalers — before the boat sank. It was only a third of what officials estimate was in the hold.

It was the sixth sub seized by the Coast Guard during the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30.

Trucks and federal drug agents stood by the San Diego Naval Base pier early Thursday, waiting for the Waesche to transfer the 19.5 tons of cocaine seized during a narcotics interdiction patrol that stretched from California to the Caribbean.

The drugs taken in by the Waesche helped the Coast Guard confiscate a record 208 tons of cocaine on the high seas last year, a haul worth about $5.6 billion.

The Coast Guard estimates that it interdicts about 20 percent of all drugs flowing by boat toward the United States. Its cutters seize about one out of every four tons of cocaine departing from South America — about three times what law-enforcement agencies confiscate each year inside America and along its land borders, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Coast Guard’s 260 drug interdictions also set a record last year, spotlighting an operational tempo that has doubled since 2008.

For the record haul of cocaine last year, Coast Guard commanders credit better federal counter-narcotics intelligence, what they call a “surge” in personnel and the arrival of new high-tech cutters to replace vessels that were up to a half-century old.

Although the Coast Guard bears the primary duty of finding and confiscating narcotics shipments on the open seas, other agencies help out, including Navy warships and the pilot of the U.S. Customs Service plane that first spotted the sub on Sept. 6 and radioed its coordinates to the Waesche.

Interdicting at sea is a priority for America’s counter-narcotics efforts because that’s when the drug loads are the largest and at their highest purity.

It’s also important to Washington’s foreign policy because some governments in South and Central America vie for control of their countries with underworld syndicates flush with cash from America’s addiction to narcotics.

“It’s not just American citizens who suffer at the hands of these dangerous criminal networks,” Coast Guard Vice Adm. Fred Midgette said Thursday. “El Salvador is a critical trans-shipment point for South American cocaine and heroin for the United States. It also has the highest murder rate in the world.”

Midgette said the Coast Guard “is constantly rebalancing” its many missions, from protecting American ports from terrorists and fisheries from illegal exploitation, but a “risk-based” approach to the agency’s counter-narcotics patrols makes its cutters a more ruthless enemy to smugglers.

Called the “Western Hemisphere Transit Zone,” the area that the Alameda-based Waesche patrols is vast — 6 million square miles, double the size of the continental United States.

Coast Guard officials said the eastern Pacific is where they seized 69 percent of the narcotics last year.

Cutters confiscated the rest in a southern slice of the Caribbean Sea that extends from Cuba to the Lesser Antilles, the string of islands running south and east from Puerto Rico to Venezuela.

The cartels that manufacture narcotics usually aren’t trying to sail dope directly to the United States.  Instead, their boats attempt to dodge Coast Guard patrols to beach along the long Mexican coast.  From there, narcotics are hauled overland up the spine of Mexico to border smugglers who sneak the drugs into America.

Four men make up the typical crew piloting a “panga,” the small open boats favored by the smuggers, according to Coast Guard records. 

The agency transferred 465 suspects seized at sea for prosecution in the United States last year. Smugglers face a 90 percent conviction rate, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In a written statement to The San Diego Union-Tribune, Coast Guard officials said armed resistance to their patrols remains “extremely rare,” but that drug runners often attempt to ram American vessels or maneuver erratically to escape arrest.

Meanwhile, Coast Guard confiscations of marijuana fell for the third year in a row. The 24.5 tons seized by cutters last year was the agency’s lowest tally since 2011.

The cutters also confiscated 44 lbs of heroin and 604 lbs of methamphetamines, showing that cocaine continues to comprise the bulk of narcotics smuggling over ocean routes.

“Our crew preserved valuable evidence and kept millions of dollars of cocaine off of America’s streets,” said Capt. James Passarelli, commanding officer of the cutter Waesche.  

“I’d certainly do it again in a heartbeat.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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