Coast Guard crews are capturing record amounts of cocaine – here‘s how they chase down high-seas smugglers

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  • The past three years have seen some of the Coast Guard‘s highest cocaine seizures on record.
  • Most of those drugs are intercepted in the eastern Pacific Ocean, where smugglers move drugs from South America to North America.
  • Each Coast Guard interdiction is a multistep process – each one designed to mitigate risks.

FT. LAUDERDALE, Florida – The Coast Guard cutter James pulled into Port Everglades on November 15 laden with hauled in by it and other Coast Guard ships during months of patrols in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

The crew of the James and the helicopter deployed with them were in formation behind the bales, some of which were topped with testaments to .

Coast Guard crews and the ships and aircraft they use have a variety of roles, but they are just one component in the fight against drug smuggling on the high seas that is reaching new heights.

The 458,000 pounds of cocaine seized in the most recent fiscal year, which ended September 30, was intercepted through a complex interdiction process that sometimes begins before the drugs even set sail, draws on governments and security forces from throughout the region, and requires crews to be as good at reacting as they are at planning.

“At-sea interdiction … is truly a team sport,” Coast Guard commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said aboard the James.

Colombia is the world‘s largest producer of coca, the base ingredient in cocaine. While it‘s the only South American country with Atlantic and Pacific coasts, more than 80% of the finished product destined for the US goes through the eastern Pacific – an area the size of the US mainland.

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Finding suspicious vessels in an area that size can be a challenge for the Coast Guard, even with the capabilities of the other US agencies and neighboring countries with which it partners.

Time, speed, and distance

Intelligence-gathering can point to when and where shipments will depart, but in the absence of that the search for seaborne smugglers often starts in at sea, where what a vessel looks like and how people aboard it behave are sometimes the first signs of nefarious activity.

“If you have like one of these open-construction boats, known as a panga, that usually has multiple outboard engines,” Capt. Jeffrey Randall, commander of the James, told Business Insider in an interview aboard the cutter.

“Most of the legitimate traffic has one engine,” Randall said. “Some of the ones that are actually trying to move the cocaine will have multiple engines so they can go faster and evade detection.”

Fuel barrels can be a tipoff. “Ones that have multiple fuel barrels, you know they are preparing for a longer transit, so that may be an indicator,” Randall said. “You may also in some cases see the bales of contraband on deck.”

In other instances, the crew of vessel not waving or otherwise acknowledging the Coast Guard‘s presence – particularly when that presence is a helicopter overhead – may also warrant closer attention.

Personnel from the Joint Interagency Task Force South, a US-based multiagency body that liaises with authorities through the region, also over the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean.

“They‘ll fly some overhead surveillance, and one of those aircraft may sight one of these vessels,” Randall said of the JIATF-South. “Then they‘ll vector us in to those targets, and then that‘s when we launch the boats, launch the helicopter, and coordinate an interdiction.”

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But where and when – and even whether – those interdictions take place depends on a number of factors.

“It basically boils down to time, speed, and distance, and where you want to effect that interdiction,” Randall said.

“There‘s a time aspect. There‘s a boat-capability aspect. There‘s a what-is-your-adversary-going-to-do aspect,” Randall said.

No two interdictions are the same, he added. It‘s “situation-dependent on all those things.”

“We talk with our pilots. We talk with our boat operators and say, ‘OK, this is what we think is going to be the best process to effect this interdiction,‘” he said. “Then we put all those pieces together, make some decisions, launch, and then try and go effect the interdiction.”

‘We do a lot of training‘

Coast Guard crew members tasked with those interdictions are typically waiting on-call aboard their ship.

“We kind of rotate with three teams, and we rotate when you‘re on ready status,” said Lt. j.g. Simon Juul-Hindsgaul, a boarding officer on the James, in an interview aboard the ship. “You‘re decked out … you hear the pipe, and you‘re ready to go.”

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Poor conditions can cause delays, as can logistical factors.

“The boats have a certain range, and you want to maximize how quickly you can get to the asset. That‘s based on sea state and some other things,” Randall said. “You want to maximize how much time your helicopter has on scene, so that‘s going to play into … that time, speed, and distance.”

“Our support role is to basically get them on target, get them going at the target, and then monitoring the target to make sure we‘re providing the adjustments to them to effect that interdiction,” Randall added, describing the cutter as the “carriage” for the small boats and helicopter.

There are different approach tactics for different kinds of vessels, Juul-Hindsgaul said, declining to elaborate on them. And different kinds of missions come with different kinds of concerns, he added.

“When it‘s a pursuit mission – so it‘s not a vessel that is potentially flagged or that we would have to just do some alongside questioning – then you‘re thinking are they going to be compliant? How am I going to approach the vessel? What‘s the safest angle of approach?”

In the small boat, where Juul-Hindsgaul is always stationed, communications are a constant concern.

“Comms with the helicopter, because they‘re generally overhead and they can vector us in, that‘s key,” he said. “The farther out we operate, the more unreliable the communications become, so then you start working secondary comms and that sort of thing.”

Approaching a suspect vessel can get hairy. In April, Coast Guard and Navy crews came upon a go-fast boat in the eastern Pacific. Spotting the US ship, the go-fast boat‘s crew began throwing their cargo overboard.

Then their engine caught fire, and Coast Guardsmen and Navy sailors had .

Some at-sea interdictions, which can take 12 hours or more, come up with nothing, either because the suspect vessel carried no contraband or because it offloaded it before being intercepted.

Whatever the situation, Coast Guardsman tasked with boarding have to prepare for a variety of potential threats. In one case, a fishing vessel intercepted by the James during its most recent cruise had more than 30 people aboard, Juul-Hindsgual said.

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“Just the sheer number of individuals that I don‘t know what they have on them before I get on board,” he said, “there‘s always that.”

“We‘re always checking to make sure that they don‘t have any weapons that could potentially harm us,” he added. “Then with the other vessels … they could potentially ram us or something, so we‘re always aware of that.”

Boarding a suspected smuggling vessel brings a new set of challenges, with a procedure to match.

“So we get on board, one of our initial procedures, which you learn out of school, is just your initial safety sweep. You always do that, make sure that the vessel‘s safe to be on board,” Juul-Hindsgaul said.

Training includes a basic boarding course for officers as well as a specialized counter-narcotics course. Crews keep training while at sea. “We do a lot of training,” Juul-Hindsgaul said.

Some smuggling vessels, especially self-propelled semi-submersibles, which carry multiton loads of drugs just below the surface and cost $1 million to $2 million apiece, are equipped with “kill switches.”

“We find that all the time, that they have scuttling valves or something,” Juul-Hindsgual said.

Sometimes smugglers just throw contraband overboard. Recovering floating bales of drugs is no easy task either.

Boarding a smuggling vessel means eventually getting off of it – a task complicated by drugs and detainees that need to be brought back.

“It matters whether or not the vessel has nationality [and] if it makes a claim of nationality,” Randall said of dealing with a seized vessel. “If it makes a claim of nationality, then we may have to use one of our … bilateral agreements … to do some exchange of information to verify the registry of the vessel or verify the nationality of the people” on it.

That inquiry and the response to it often has to go through layers of bureaucracy. It may to get an answer, but that answer affects what comes next, Randall said.

“For the safety of the people we usually bring them on board, because some of these semi-submersible or these low profile vessels are not the safest vessels to be on,” he added. “So we‘ll remove them and put them on our boats, which [are] a safer platform, until those disposition processes work out.”

“That‘s generally an all-hands effort,” Juul-Hindsgaul said of removing people and contraband.

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“I‘m out there on the boarding team and we … do the full law-enforcement boarding,” he added, “and then we‘ll set a different scenario where we set a stage on board, where everyone preps and gets ready and then we‘ll just transport all that back to the vessel.”

Coast Guardsmen handling any suspected drugs are outfitted with protective gear.

“You don‘t want to get any of it on you or ingest any of it,” Randall said. “It‘s really highly potent.”

“People train to go through and … check medical and all that sort of stuff for” detainees, Juul-Hindsgual said. “Then we gear up and then transport the contraband to a secure hold” aboard the Coast Guard ship.

“We give [detainees] a medical check. We get them showered. We give them a uniform and then start providing three meals a day and all that kind of stuff,” Randall said. “They take good care of them until we get them back to the US judicial system.”

Detainees, some of whom arrive poorly clothed or in ill health, with the ship, disembarking to another vessel if the cutter makes a port call in another country, as the Coast Guard must hold them in international waters.

“Once we get, basically, to a position where we‘re allowed to enforce US law or a country waives jurisdiction … and we get an positive drug test, we will embark the people as detainees and then embark the contraband and then hold them until we can bring them back for US prosecution,” Randall said.

‘Peddlers of poison‘

Taking care of the drugs is fairly straight-forward process. Seizures from several ships are collected aboard one ship for an offload, usually in South Florida or Southern California.

From there, the drugs are usually turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which takes samples and discards the rest. Each year, the DEA‘s Cocaine Signature Program conducts tests on about 2,500 cocaine samples.

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The DEA says its tests can determine the origin of cocaine down to the sub-regional level with 96% confidence, and it consistently finds that Colombian cocaine dominates the US market.

The DEA has “ways to … analyze that [cocaine] and then the bulk of it gets destroyed,” said Schultz, the Coast Guard commandant. “They will use it to enable prosecutions to better inform the intelligence picture on this threat that exists out there.”

Things are more complicated for the human cargo that Coast Guard ships bring back.

While the Coast Guard is a law-enforcement agency, the expansion of the drug war and of its authority to detain suspected smugglers in international waters has increased the numbers of detainees. That increase has raised concern about legal procedure and due process.

In 2017, a former Coast Guard lawyer described the cutters holding detainees at sea as “.” Another Coast Guard officer called them “boat prisons.”

Schultz‘s predecessor, Paul Zukunft, who retired as an admiral in 2018, bristled at that description when asked about it during a December 2017 interview, saying he thought it was “an unfair stab at the Coast Guard.”

Taking care of detainees while aboard and offloading them to the proper authorities were “a challenge of logistics,” he said.

The Coast Guard and US officials have said to bring down trafficking networks, though the smugglers being caught – often low-level members of criminal groups or fishermen who sign up for the lucrative pay a successful smuggling run can bring – can offer more than fragments of information.

“Make no mistake, these are peddlers of poison,” Zukunft said in December 2017. “So I think there‘s been a mischaracterization of who these people are. They have choices. They‘ve elected to engage in criminal activity. That is a direct threat to the livelihood here in the United States.”

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