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Coast Guard offloads $300M worth of cocaine seized in Eastern Pacific

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf crewmembers offload approximately 14 tons of cocaine, April 7, 2016, in San Diego. All of the contraband was interdicted by Coast Guard crews aboard the Coast Guard Cutters Bertholf, Valiant and USS Lassen in the Eastern Pacific Ocean from January to March 2016. (Petty Officer 1st Class Rob Simpson/U.S. Coast Guard)

The Coast Guard on Wednesday offloaded more than 11 tons of cocaine worth an estimated $300 million that was seized in international waters in the Eastern Pacific in less than a month.

Crews aboard three Coast Guard cutters — the Stratton, the Seneca and the Active — confiscated the drugs from eight smuggling boats from late August to mid-September, officials said.

Crew members gathered on the deck of the Stratton early Wednesday at the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal as pallets of cocaine, wrapped in burlap bags, were moved from the ship’s deck to trucks waiting below.

A sample of the narcotics will be tested and retained as evidence as the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecutes 29 people arrested in connection with the smuggling cases.

The rest of the drugs will be analyzed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and later destroyed.

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Capt. Craig Wieschhorster, commanding officer of the Stratton, said the seizures not only keep drugs from making their way onto the streets of the U.S. but have other impacts as well.

“As this stuff gets trafficked, these transnational criminal organizations sow violence and instability in the region and they prohibit legitimate commercial enterprises,” he said. “All that increases migration pressures on the U.S. southern border.”

The smuggling boats that were stopped included pangas and low-slung “go fast” boats. They were all found more than 1,000 miles off the coasts of Mexico, and Central and South America.

In some cases, Wieschhorster said, Coast Guard crew members were able to surprise those on the boats after using drones to fly over to observe the smugglers.

“We will roll up on these guys, sometimes under the cover of darkness, and we get onboard without them being aware and we are able to take everything down at once — the narcotics, the people and the vessels,” he said.

Other times, smugglers spotted the Coast Guard personnel and tried to dump their drugs and evade crew members.

Weapons were found on some of the boats, but no one used them against his crew, he said. The Stratton was responsible for stopping six boats, while the Active and Seneca each stopped one vessel.

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Before they act, U.S. officials ensure they are authorized to board the boats and seize the illict cargo. If the boat is carrying a country’s flag, officials will communicate with law enforcement contacts in those countries to determine how to proceed, a Coast Guard spokesman said.

Wieschhorster said the Coast Guard works with numerous partner agencies, including the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. intelligence agencies, federal prosecutors and the military, as well as international partners, in its drug interdiction effort.

“Our U.S. southern border strategy is security starts at sea,” the captain said. “We can interdict more cocaine in its purest form at sea when we know the smugglers are most vulnerable.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection use planes and drones to help to search and locate smuggling boats to be intercepted by Coast Guard cutters. Timothy Sutherland, deputy director of CBP’s San Diego air and marine branch, said air crews do long-range surveillance missions and use a wide-area radar that can detect movement out on the water.

“We are able to detect, we are able to monitor and ultimately we are able to disrupt that activity of the smugglers,” he said.

Wieschhorster said Coast Guard crews are patrolling an area in the Eastern Pacific that is about the size of the continental U.S.

“It’s a big region. It’s a huge area,” he said. “Having three ships down there is not a lot. It’s a big area to cover…

“This is just 30 days worth of effort,” he said, pointing to the pallets laden with bricks of cocaine wrapped in burlap. “So this happens quite a bit.”

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© 2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.