When the Coast Guard Cutter Valiant returned home Friday from the Caribbean Sea, the crew unloaded an unusual cargo: lots of cocaine.
Once ashore, the Guardsmen moved 3,800 pounds valued at $48 million onto the dock in Miami Beach.
They wore protective masks as they unloaded the bags, some labeled “red kidney beans,” containing cocaine sacks wrapped in plastic.
The seized drugs were obtained through three different stings — off the coasts of Nicaragua and Colombia — across Caribbean waters.
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The drug busts were part of the ongoing Operation Martillo, which brought together various U.S. agencies and Caribbean countries to intercept illegal drugs, weapons and money from Central America.
During the first operation, the Coast Guard confiscated more than 2,600 pounds of cocaine valued at $32.5 million.
It began on May 31, when a 35-foot boat traveled 50 miles off the east coast of Nicaragua in international waters. Sailing in the middle of the night without navigation lights, the boat aimed to move large amounts of drugs undetected.
The Valiant’s crew — together with the U.S. Navy, Nicaraguan authorities and a Coast Guard helicopter —intercepted it.
“The helicopter tried to hail the vessel, told them to stop,” said Cmdr. John Dettleff, the Valiant’s commanding officer. After the boat ignored the command, Coast Guard personnel shot at the boat’s engine.
Authorities found no weapons on board. Dettleff speculated that they were likely thrown into the sea, along with a lot of the drugs.
The crew spent the next 24 hours scouring the sea looking for floating loot. They found a lot of it as part of a “debris field,” Dettleff said.
Along with the cocaine, five suspects were taken into U.S. custody.
The other two seizures that netted some of the cocaine haled into Miami Beach Friday were handled by other Coast Guard operations. One of them brought in $13 million in cocaine; the other about $3 million.
Though Operation Martillo surveys air, land and maritime routes, most of the cocaine found is captured at sea.
Since 2011, the Coast Guard has intercepted more than 75,000 pounds of cocaine — 25,000 pounds more than land-based U.S. officials seized in 2010.
The 45-year-old Valiant, which has been based in Miami Beach for the last 19 years, routinely conducts missions like these in the Caribbean.
For Cmdr. Dettleff, though, this last assignment he led has a special significance. The commanding officer is at the end of a two-year tour and just completed his final patrol. During the May 31 interdiction, he saw a camaraderie on his ship that brought together the experienced and the newcomers.
“The guys that I’ve sailed with for the last few years bringing in the new guys and executing a very complicated, precise, high stakes interdiction like this, it was very personally gratifying for me,” he said.