In the early morning hours of Jan 22, almost a thousand miles from Miami, U.S. Coast Guard officers aboard a small, highly-equipped aircraft spotted a dot on the ocean surface, skipping over waves and traveling at high speed.
A Coast Guard helicopter aboard a British Royal Fleet Auxillary vessel in the vicinity doing a joint operation gave chase. After warning shots were fired, a vessel carrying several Coast Guard officers caught up with the go-fast boat and boarded.
On Tuesday morning, law enforcement officials at the U.S. Coast Guard Miami Beach station showcased their catch: 45 bricks of cocaine wrapped tightly in nylon burlap sacks reading “refined sugar” in Spanish. The coke haul had a street value in excess of $37 million.
The Coast Guard called the Jan. 22 mission “historic,” not because of the size of the haul — though it is large compared to past high seas drug busts — but because of the combined effort of the Coast Guard and the British Royal Fleet.
“It was a unique and successful mission,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma. “We fired warning shots, and they tossed bails.”
It was the first time a U.S. armed helicopter was launched from a British ship, Somma said.
“This is the middle of the night, in the middle of the ocean,” he said.
Though the Coast Guard and the Royal Fleet have patroled the Southern Caribbean jointly for several years, it was the first time the two blended physical resources to intercept such a large amount of contraband. The British seagoer Wave Knight, like other auxillary Royal Fleet vessels, is a civilian-manned craft used primarily to supply the Royal Navy with fuel. It also transports personnel and helps patrol the Caribbean.
The Coast Guard on Tuesday also released a grainy, 41-second video of the Jan. 22 interdiction, which clearly shows a 25-foot speed boat traveling fast as the bright light of a helicopter shines down. As the chopper gives chase, the speed boat changes direction. The video then skips to a Coast Guard vessel approaching from the left and an officer boarding the boat.
Coast Guard officials say smugglers tossed several bales of cocaine into the ocean, which later were retrieved. The contraband was placed on the Wave Knight, then transferred to the 110-foot Coast Guard Sitkinak, an island class vessel with a crew of more than a dozen, high powered guns and high-end technology satellites. Because of logistics, it took the Sitkinak more than five days to reach Miami, where the smugglers were handed over to federal law enforcement.
Local media gawked Tuesday as Coast Guardsmen, wearing surgical masks, brought out the cargo — bale by bale — stacking each on pallets.
The four men aboard the go-fast boat — Linberto Gallardo-Gonzalez, Uriel Julio Tapia, Miguel Vasquez-Barrios, all from Colombia, and Miguel Angel Sori-Ortiz from the Dominican Republic — are scheduled on Wednesday to appear in Tampa federal court before U.S. Magistrate Thomas G. Wilson on federal drug charges.
William Daniels, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Middle District of Florida, said his agency has 30 days to present the evidence to a grand jury.
“Tomorrow should be the return of the indictment,” said Daniels.
Last year the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted more than $5 billion worth of contraband on the seas, said Somma.