12 smugglers apprehended from three semi-submersible vessels in Eastern Pacific

ALAMEDA, Calif – A dozen suspected drug smugglers were apprehended between New Years Eve and January 8 by the U. S. Coast Guard in the Eastern Pacific Ocean following the interception of three semi-submersible drug trafficking vessels by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships on routine patrol in the region.   The suspects will be turned over to the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

On Dec. 31 a semi-submersible drug trafficking vessel was stopped approximately 200 miles of the coast of Ecuador. A helicopter was launched from the USS Rodney M. Davis and a five member U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement boarding team assigned to the ship got underway aboard an interceptor boat.

As the boarding team and helicopter converged on the vessel the suspected smugglers donned lifejackets and jumped into the water.  The suspects’ vessel remained partially afloat for approximately 20 minutes but sank before any drugs could be confiscated.  All four crewmembers were rescued and taken aboard the Navy ship.  It is common practice for drug smugglers to intentionally scuttle their vessels and that is suspected in this case.

On Jan. 7 a second semi-submersible drug trafficking vessel with four suspects aboard was intercepted by the USS Rodney M. Davis and a Coast Guard law enforcement team approximately 550 miles off the coast of Ecuador with similar results.  In this case the suspects also set fire to their vessel before abandoning it.

And Jan. 8 the Coast Guard Cutter Alert intercepted a drug trafficking vessel approximately 200 miles northwest of the Ecuador-Colombia border.  As in the previous two cases, the suspects abandoned ship and were rescued.

The drug trafficking vessels in all three cases sank before Coast Guard law enforcement officers could retrieve any contraband, but the suspects could be prosecuted under a new U.S. law.  The Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008 makes it illegal to operate the type of craft recently intercepted regardless of whether illegal drugs are found.

“These vessels, in the past, have scuttled themselves making it very difficult to get the contraband out and to have successful prosecutions.  We now have another option to deal with these offenders,” said Adm. Thad Allen, Commandant of the Coast Guard, acknowledging the new law.  “I would just pass on the USS Rodney M. Davis, Coast Guard Cutter Alert, our deployed forces including such as DHS, Customs and Border Protection — in fact the entire team that works for Joint Interagency Task Force South – that our counter drug operations have worked for many, many years because it’s a team effort, it’s based on good intelligence, and the command, control and coordination is unrivaled anywhere in the world,” he said.

Semi-submersible drug trafficking vessels are a relatively recent innovation of drug traffickers to avoid U.S. and international counter-drug capabilities.  The vessels are capable of carrying several metric tons of cocaine.  They have typically ranged between 25-65 feet long, travel at speeds up to 13 knots, carry 4-5 crewmembers, and it is estimated they can travel up to 2,500 nautical miles without refueling.

Since the vessels have a low profile – the hulls only rise about a foot above the waterline — they are hard to see from a distance and produce a small radar signature.  U.S. counter-drug officials estimate that these vessels are responsible for 32% of all cocaine movement in the transit zone between South America and the United States.

Aggressive patrols and surveillance of drug transit zones in both the Atlantic and Pacific by the Coast Guard, Navy, and other military and law enforcement agencies is coordinated by the Joint Interagency Task Force based in Key West, Florida.  Counter drug patrols and interdictions are also coordinated with many nations in the region.  U.S. seizures of vessels and contraband and apprehension of suspects in the Eastern Pacific, where most of the cocaine seized by the U.S. is intercepted, are conducted under the tactical control and law enforcement authority of the Coast Guard’s 11th District based in Alameda.

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