TAMPA – An interagency team received the Coast Guard Distinguished Public Service Award for their efforts to combat transnational criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking during a ceremony Thursday at 10 a.m.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office Middle District of Florida and Operation Panama Express South (PANEX) form an interagency team that has investigated and prosecuted more than 60 cases from one of the most successful fiscal years in cocaine removal for the Coast Guard, which ran from Oct. 1, 2014, to Sept. 30, 2015.
“This award honors some of the highest levels of interagency coordination and cooperation we’ve seen across a myriad of U.S. and international entities in our Nation’s whole-of-government effort to eradicate transnational organized crime networks,” said Rear Admiral Pat DeQuattro, deputy commander, Coast Guard Pacific Area. “These men and women have significantly contributed to the safety and security of millions in our Nation and throughout the Western Hemisphere through their dedication and skill.”
The interagency team investigated and prosecuted the majority of cases resulting from the Coast Guard’s removal of over 319,000 pounds of cocaine in Fiscal Year 2015. This included the disruption of four self-propelled semi submersible (SPSS) vessels smuggling more than 24 tons of cocaine (For video from these cases, please see the links below). These efforts have increased knowledge and understanding of the operations of transnational organized crime networks leading to follow-on drug seizures by the Coast Guard and its interagency partners.
In Fiscal Year 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa prosecuted a record number, 61, of the Coast Guard’s interdictions, resulting in the arrest of 220 defendants. During this same period, 109 defendants were convicted by guilty pleas or jury verdicts. These convictions culminated in 77 defendants being sentenced to a total of 813 years in prison. In Fiscal Year 2016, the office has already surpassed last year’s record-breaking year with 71 Coast Guard interdictions presented to the Middle District of Florida for prosecution.
The interagency team prosecuted numerous high-profile cases from Fiscal Year 2015. Most notably, a federal jury found three Mexican nationals conspiring to possess cocaine with the intent distribute. The men attempted to rendezvous with a SPSS to offload $150,000,000 worth of cocaine from the semisubmersible; however, the Coast Guard seized the SPSS and detained the three men. The Coast Guard turned the case over to the interagency team and the Middle District of Florida.
Since January 2000, the United States Attorney’s Office and Panama Express have prosecuted almost 500 of the Coast Guard’s maritime drug interdictions in the Tampa Division. With a conviction rate of over 97 percent and sentences averaging over 10 years, the team has substantially contributed to the Nation’s counter-drug effort by reducing the flow of cocaine from Central and South America to the United States, and dismantling Transnational Organized Crime transportation and supply networks.
Information received during drug smuggling cases is regularly used to target the leaders of transnational organized crime networks. From 2002 to 2011, intelligence gained from Coast Guard drug trafficking cases contributed to the arrest and extradition 75 percent of all Colombian Consolidated Priority Organizational Targets, or “drug kingpins.”
The Coast Guard Distinguished Public Service Award is the highest honor or award the service can bestow upon a civilian or organization behind only the Gold and Silver Lifesaving Medals.
The Middle District of Florida serves 35 of the 67 counties in Florida, which is over half the population of Florida from Jacksonville in the north, Orlando in the center of the state, through Tampa on the west coast, and south to the Ft. Myers area.
Operation Panama Express South is a standing Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force investigation, comprised of agents and analysts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the United States Coast Guard Investigative Service, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force South.