Crime

Coast Guard lowers hammer on drug-running on high seas

Coast Guard personnel offload intercepted cocaine at the Miami Beach base earlier this month.
Coast Guard personnel offload intercepted cocaine at the Miami Beach base earlier this month. U.S. Coast Guard District 7

When the cutter Vigilant docked at the Coast Guard base in Miami Beach on June 12, its crew offloaded bales of marijuana and packets of cocaine worth millions on the illegal market.

It was the latest catch in the ongoing Operation Martillo dragnet in which vessels and aircraft from the United States and more than a dozen other countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe seek to disrupt drug-trafficking routes in the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Launched Jan. 15, 2012, Operation Martillo (Spanish for hammer) has netted at least 515,336 kilos of cocaine and 117,754 pounds of marijuana. It has also led to the arrest of at least 1,348 people in various operations under the program. The interdictions have resulted in a loss of about $8 billion in revenue for drug trafficking organizations, according to official U.S. estimates.

The figures were supplied by a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command. Operation Martillo is run by Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-South), in support of U.S. Southern Command.

Operation Martillo has projected an image of an all-encompassing strategy able to catch many of the drug boatloads headed for the United States. But some U.S. officials in the past have said that its efforts are not enough because of limited resources.

“Because of asset shortfalls, we’re unable to get after 74 percent of suspected maritime drug smuggling,” Southern Command Cmdr. Marine Gen. John Kelly was widely quoted as saying in 2014.

Since then, however, Martillo has acquired more assets and Kelley has expressed more optimism about drug interdictions.

“The Coast Guard Commandant shares my view that transnational organized crime poses a significant threat to our hemisphere, and he has committed a 50 percent increase in cutters equipped with ability to land a helicopter, plus a commensurate plus-up in maritime patrol aircraft hours.” Kelly said in the 2015 Southern Command posture statement before Congress.

How the Coast Guard cutter Vigilant came to deliver the seized cocaine and marijuana at the base in Miami Beach is generally the way Operation Martillo plays out.

First Coast Guard cutters patrolling the Atlantic or Caribbean spot a boat suspected of carrying drugs.

In this case, the cocaine was discovered on May 22, when crew members aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Bear and the Vigilant responded jointly to reports from a Colombian Air Force maritime patrol aircraft of a suspicious go-fast vessel. The go-fast began heading toward Colombian shores and beached itself on an island. Vigilant crew members then recovered 14 bales of jettisoned contraband that turned out to be cocaine.

Five days later, a helicopter from the Coast Guard Cutter Resolute located another suspicious go-fast boat northeast of Panama. The helicopter observed the go-fast crew jettisoning packages over the side as the cutter deployed a boarding party. Personnel recovered 62 bales of marijuana. Four suspected smugglers were taken into custody. The wholesale value of the cocaine was $10.9 million, while the wholesale value of the marijuana was $13.7 million, according to a Coast Guard statement.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard said that its personnel planned to turn over the four detained suspects to federal law enforcement officials in Miami.

This is perhaps the most controversial dimension of Operation Martillo.

That’s because no matter where the suspects are detained in the high seas, many of them are brought to Miami for prosecution.

Some of these defendants, with the assistance of their attorneys, have challenged the detentions abroad and prosecution here as unlawful. But so far, none of these challenges have stopped law enforcement officials from prosecuting defendants detained abroad as part of Operation Martillo.

At least one or two high-seas drug interdiction case emerges in Miami federal court dockets every month.

“Our ongoing Operation Martillo continues to yield tactical successes thanks to increased contributions by our partner nations and our continued coordination with DEA,” Kelly said in his statement to Congress.

Follow Alfonso Chardy on Twitter @AlfonsoChardy

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