Drug Traffickers Switching Focus to Pacific Routes, Authorities Say


A 40-foot motorboat headed north in the Pacific Ocean off Central America, about 200 miles from land. That was enough to raise suspicion.

“There’s no reason to go out that far to fish,” said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Sabellico of the U.S. Coast Guard in San Diego. “Normally, that means they’re involved in something illegal.”

In this case, it was hauling more than 1,600 pounds of cocaine destined for the United States, according to Coast Guard officials.


Two hours after a patrol plane spotted the boat, a U.S. Navy frigate, with sailors and Coast Guard personnel on board, stopped the vessel by firing 15 warning shots from a .50-caliber machine gun.

The drug seizure and arrest of seven men off Panama in December was the most recent example of what U.S. authorities say is a major shift in drug trafficking to a vast ocean territory stretching from South America to California.

More than 80% of the 126,000 pounds of cocaine seized by the Coast Guard in the 2000 fiscal year came from vessels in the eastern Pacific Ocean, up from 38% in 1999.

In the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, the cocaine seized in the region so far makes up 95% of the total, 20,500 pounds.

Authorities believe about half of all cocaine bound for the United States is smuggled from Colombia through the eastern Pacific as traffickers avoid the traditional Caribbean route.

A major factor in the shift is increased law enforcement patrols in the Caribbean, said Coast Guard Capt. Jeffrey Hathaway, who is part of a federal drug task force that includes the Customs Service, Department of Defense, Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies.


The shift also is driven by the smugglers’ realization that the vastness of the eastern Pacific smuggling region, an area nearly the size of the continental United States, makes it hard to get caught, Hathaway said.

Traffickers based in Colombia use fast-moving motorboats with two or three outboard engines, loaded with drugs and extra gas, to reach the southwest coast of Mexico in about two days. They rely on fishing boats scattered along the route to refuel.

From Mexico, most of the cocaine is smuggled overland into the United States, officials said. Some of it also is transferred into smaller boats that try to sail directly into U.S. ports.

Navy and Coast Guard ships and aircraft patrol international waters. Closer to shore, Customs and Border Patrol officials monitor harbors and bays around California and Texas.

United Nations agreements and accords between individual nations authorize U.S. authorities to arrest and prosecute traffickers caught in international waters.

But the U.S. military is prohibited from law enforcement activities. The Coast Guard, which is not part of the Defense Department, faces no such restriction.


At sea, the traffickers benefit from a region with few natural bottlenecks for boat traffic. Closer to home, those smugglers who try to make it the last mile into the United States can hide among the thousands of pleasure boats and legitimate fishing and tour vessels.

“People don’t think there’s much of a problem on the West Coast, but they’re wrong,” said Max Chandler, a Customs marine enforcement officer in San Diego. “We’ve got a huge problem.”

Federal agencies have transferred an undisclosed number of agents from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and the result has been a string of arrests and seizures over the last year.

Among the largest catches was the seizure off Panama in September of 5,300 pounds of cocaine, with a street value of $530 million. Alongside the motorboat carrying the drugs was a 72-foot Colombian fishing vessel, which was allegedly used to refuel smaller smuggling craft.

A low-level crew member on such a venture might earn $1,000; a captain might receive $50,000 or more, authorities said. But the wages vary widely.

In December, a 49-year-old U.S. citizen arrested by Customs entering San Diego harbor with 600 pounds of marijuana from Mexico in his sailboat told authorities he was paid $12,800, court records show. It was his fifth trip in two weeks.


But the penalties also can be substantial. The 12 Colombians arrested in international waters off Panama in September face a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years and a maximum of life in prison, according to the federal prosecutor in that case, Assistant U.S. Atty. Bill Gallo.

If the past is any gauge, the drug trafficking in the eastern Pacific is likely to taper off as U.S. authorities become more adept at catching the smugglers, Gallo said.

“It’s just like a chess game,” he said. “They make a move, and we make a countermove.”