U.S. Coast Guard interdiction nets record cocaine seizure
The U.S. Coast Guard said Wednesday it captured 42,845 pounds of cocaine after boarding a Panamanian-flagged commercial vessel at sea, the largest maritime seizure of the drug in the nation’s history.
The enforcement action took place March 17 off the East Coast of Panama after U.S. authorities received permission from Panama to board the freighter. A Coast Guard team discovered the cocaine hidden in two containers on the vessel 'Gatun' and arrested the 14 Panamanian and Mexican crewmembers, who will be prosecuted in Panama and the United States.
The Coast Guard had intelligence about the shipment from the Drug Enforcement Agency and used a C-130 patrol plane to spot the 'Gatun' before a San Diego-based cutter intercepted the ship.
The cocaine has an estimated wholesale value of $300 million. The Mexican-based drug traffickers loaded bales of cocaine directly into the containers on the top deck of the vessel, rather than following the typical practice of secreting the drugs into containers with legitimate shipments or hidden compartments, DEA Administrator Karen Tandy said at a press conference.
Coast Guard seizures of cocaine have increased markedly during the past three years. The largest previous cocaine seizure by the Coast Guard was 30,109 pounds from a state-less vessel in 2004.
The action also highlighted the Coast Guard’s operational limitations due to an aging fleet of aircraft and vessels. Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commandant, said the 40-year-old cutter involved in the intercept was only operating on one of its two diesel engines due to a malfunction and was shuttling parts back and forth with a helicopter from shore during the boarding operation. The Coast Guard’s Deepwater fleet modernization program has been beset by faulty construction and cost overruns by the main contractors that have forced the agency to limit the use of new or retrofitted cutters. Eight retrofitted cutters have been deemed not seaworthy.