The Coast Guard on Thursday began unloading more than $721 million worth of cocaine seized in the eastern Pacific Ocean, including some that was located with the help of drone surveillance that a Coast Guard vice admiral called “a game changer.”
Between late November and early January, more than 47,000 pounds of cocaine were seized in 23 separate interdictions by U.S. and Canadian forces operating in international waters off the coasts of Central America and South America, officials said.
On Thursday, cocaine bundles, some of them wrapped in colorful nylon mesh, were piled high on pallets on the deck of the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton at the B Street Pier in San Diego.
Officials said the narcotics will be turned over to federal agents and used to investigate and prosecute drug traffickers before eventually being destroyed.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Fred Midgette said crews increasingly are seeing smugglers using low-profile “go fast” boats to move illicit cargo. The boats are nimble, sit low in the water, often are painted blue and gray so they blend in and are hard to spot on radar.
The Stratton was equipped with at least one unmanned aerial vehicle known as a ScanEagle that can be used on long patrol flights and fitted with infrared and telescope cameras to scan the ocean for vessels.
“The drones are a game changer for us because they can stay up so long and they have a very wide swath of the water they can look at,” Midgette said.
“When you are trying to find one of these pangas or low-profile vessels, it is hard to spot them on the water. The radars don’t pick them up well if they are painted correctly... They absolutely have increased our effectiveness.”
In the past six months, the Coast Guard interdicted 13 of the boats and two self-propelled semi-submersibles, officials said.
“The seizure of this incredible amount of cocaine since November 2017 means that tons of cocaine will not see the streets of our nation and million of dollars in narcotics proceeds will not go back to the pockets of drug-trafficking cartels,” said Adam Braverman, interim U.S. attorney for San Diego and Imperial counties, at the news conference.
To assist in the fight against drug-trafficking cartels, Braverman said he intends to form an interagency maritime strike force to work on prosecuting those transporting narcotics by sea.
“To those drug-trafficking cartels that are shipping their narcotics on the high seas, you and your cocaine are on our radar,” he said. “Our message here today is stop shipping your narcotics to our nation or we will seize it and bring you to justice here in San Diego.”
Kucher writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.