The U.S. Coast Guard has seized a smuggling ship carrying more than 12 tons of California-bound cocaine off the coast of Peru, the largest seizure of cocaine on the high seas in the history of U.S. law enforcement, federal officials said Friday.
The vessel was towed into San Diego on Thursday after being intercepted three weeks ago. The operation remained a secret until Friday. Under maritime law that permits drug interdiction in international waters, a U.S. Coast Guard boarding team from a Navy cruiser found the cocaine--which has an estimated street value of $143 million--hidden in two compartments in a waste oil tank, authorities said.
"This is an extraordinary situation," said U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin, who convened a waterfront news conference in front of the vessel, the Nataly I. "There have been maritime seizures before, but this one is enormous."
The 10-member Colombian crew of the Panamanian-registered fishing ship was arraigned on drug trafficking charges in San Diego federal court Friday. And a federal official confirmed Friday that the Coast Guard had intercepted another fishing vessel carrying 2 or 3 tons of cocaine and was towing the second vessel to San Diego.
Although the usual route for such drug loads is to land in Mexico and then be smuggled across the U.S. border, agents are investigating the possibility that the smugglers were heading directly to Southern California, according to a federal source who asked not to be identified.
Citing the ongoing investigation, law enforcement officials declined to answer questions about either of the boats at the news conference.
Colombian traffickers usually move cocaine in loads of 10 tons or more by plane and ship to Mexico, where Mexican transporters smuggle it across the U.S. border. But U.S. law enforcement agents say the smugglers have also sent seagoing drug loads directly to West Coast destinations, sometimes concealed in cargo and on other occasions loaded onto smaller vessels for clandestine landings.
Investigators suspect that the Nataly I was linked to the Cali cartel of Colombia, according to federal law enforcement sources. The seizure could represent another blow to the increasingly battered Cali organization at a difficult moment. The cartel, which authorities say controls most of the world's cocaine market, has been hit by the arrests of top leaders during the last two months and an investigation of corruption that has reached all the way up to the Colombian president.
Although declarations of the cartel's demise seem premature, a top law enforcement official in San Diego said Friday that the sustained attack on the criminal hierarchy appears to have damaged its international transportation infrastructure.
"We are hearing that the Mexicans are saying that they are having trouble with shipments, that things are starting to dry up," the official said. "We are hearing about shortages from large-scale customers in the United States and from Mexican transporters. There are some concerns about what's in the pipeline and how long this is going to last. The effects are being felt all the way down the chain, from production to movement of money."
The smuggling flow has slowed partly because Colombian police have arrested six of the original seven cartel bosses. Only Helmer Herrera remains at large.
Details remained sketchy Friday about the outfit that was using the Nataly I for smuggling and the circumstances of the interception.
The Navy cruiser, the Cape St. George, encountered the vessel July 25, about 780 miles west of Peru. A Coast Guard investigative team boarded it with the permission of the ship's captain, who said he had embarked on a fishing voyage a week earlier, officials said. The U.S. investigators, suspicious because there were no fish or fishing accouterments in the hold, conducted a chemical test that showed the presence of cocaine.
The government of Panama then consented to a search of the ship. After two days of removing waste oil from a storage tank, Coast Guard sailors discovered the compartments containing the cocaine, which was in 50-pound bundles, Bersin said. The 10 crew members were arrested and the Navy towed the Nataly I to San Diego.
The record seizure of 24,325 pounds of cocaine aboard the 112-foot fishing vessel was almost double the previous largest maritime haul by U.S. authorities. That was in 1989, when agents seized 12,201 pounds from a Colombian ship.