A Different Kind of Bale Out

It weighs about 50 pounds. It is packaged in white or black plastic woven fabric, much like the material used for a 20-pound bag of rice. Except it’s cocaine, not rice, that’s packaged within 20 kilo-sized bricks each measuring the size of an elementary school textbook are filled inside of what is commonly referred to as a bale of cocaine.

Breaking radio silence, the boarding officer shouts into the microphone trying to overcome the screaming engines of the cutter’s pursuit boat, “They’re dumping bales.” Maybe be because of the adrenaline or the noise of the engines and wind or the low fidelity of the plastic speakers on the bridge and in Combat Information Center or because he’s a little scared – most likely for all these reasons, it’s hard to understand him. But all of us who were listening knew what was happening and we were all ready for it.

So here we were again, minutes before midnight Jan. 25, 2009, and for the second night in a row, the pursuit team from the San Diego based Coast Guard Cutter Chase is racing up the wake of a go-fast vessel in the black of night. Somewhere between the land mass of South America and the Galapagos Islands, the 378-foot long cutter and its pursuit boat are running fast with lights out, trying to catch smugglers.

Wearing trash bags that serve as make-shift rain gear, three smugglers are hunkered down in their custom-made go-fast boat that was created for one single purpose – delivering cocaine. Powered by three 200-horsepower engines, the reinforced fiberglass go-fast is trying to outmaneuver our 300-horsepower turbo-charged diesel rigid-hull inflatable interceptor.

The good-guys are winning, and catching up.

But the smugglers aren’t giving up easily. In order to lighten their load and increase speed, they begin dumping the bales overboard.

The bales have taken on so many forms this evening: a promise of a paycheck for the three smugglers; a boatload of opportunity for thousands of users to satisfy their addictive habits; and now, because of the Coast Guard, they are used as speed bumps as they are thrown in the direction of the cutter’s small boat, trying to slow down the pursuit boat coxswain. Well trained for these pursuits at the Coast Guard’s Special Missions Training Center at Camp LeJeune, N.C., nothing compares to the real thing. Especially when it happens in the black of night on the high seas, where the guys in the other boat are real-world Colombian drug smugglers, not boat-driving instructors from North Carolina.

And they are desperate, willing to do anything to keep from being caught. That includes dumping the bales, one by one, into the sea. Each burlap bag contains 20 one-kilogram bricks (worth wholesale $30,500 per kilo) and is valued at $610,000 but is now being tossed into the go-fast’s wake creating a high speed make-shift obstacle course. The purpose is to make it difficult to get in a position for warning shots and disabling fire. That’s a high dollar speed bump. For a product worth that much money, one may expect designer brands (Louis Vuitton comes to mind) to be used for the containment and delivery of each bale. Certainly something more than plastic burlap marked “SUCRE” and a make-shift handle made of the type of twine you may have used to tie down a Christmas tree to the roof of your car last year.

With each bale dumped, the go-fast boat gets a little faster and a little further away as Chase and its pursuit boat continue east toward Colombia. It’s pitch black, not a sliver of moonlight, so Jason and his crew can’t keep an accurate count, but based on intelligence and past experience, these go-fasts carry about 40-50 bales–multi-million dollar pieces of flotsam and jetsam left adrift for Chase to recover.

This time the bad guys got away. Yet victory lies in the knowledge that this one-ton shipment did not make it to the United States. This is one “bale out” we can all be proud of. The next time the Chase is on, we’ll also handcuff the bad guys.

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