Coast Guard intercepts large cocaine shipment in central Caribbean waters

The U.S. Coast Guard unloaded 2,300 pounds of cocaine intercepted this week in the central Caribbean, displaying the bales of drugs worth $35 million during a press conference on Miami Beach on Saturday.

Four people were arrested in the operation, which involved a Coast Guard helicopter firing shots to disable the engine of the drug-smuggling fast boat. The four defendants have been transfered to federal authorities in Tampa.

Lt. Comm. Gabe Somma, a Coast Guard spokesperson, said the interception was part of Operation Unified Resolve, which started in October of last year and focuses attention on drug smuggling through the Caribbean, especially around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"That's where we've been seeing an increase in trafficking and in drug-related homicides," Somma said.

The operation started shortly before midnight on July 14, when the Coast Guard spotted a go-fast boat traveling quickly and well away from land carrying what appeared to be bales of narcotics, said Lt. Paul Stetler, commanding officer of a Coast Guard cutter involved in the seizure.

Two Coast Guard cutters responded, one of which was equipped with an armed helicopter, which flew over the smuggling boat.

"Once they announced their presence, the go-fast began to flee," Stetler said. The people on the boat also started throwing the drug packages off the side of the boat into the ocean.

"The helicopter then used disabling fire to shoot out the engines of the go-fast," Stetler said.

Coast Guard helicopters typically use a 50-caliber rifle to disable the engines of fleeing boats, said Lt. Mario Gil of the Coast Guard's 7th district in Miami.

"A lot of the time it doesn't take that much -- they'll just stop because we're there," Gil said. "But if they don't, this is a capability that we have, and we use it frequently."

After the go-fast boat was disabled, Stetler's ship, the Coast Guard cutter Robert Yered, spent 10 hours scouring the water for the discarded drugs. They eventually discovered 42 bales of cocaine, Stetler Said.

According to Gil, this amount is the average load typically transported by small go-fast boats.

Operation Unified Resolve, a multi-agency drug interdiction strategy launched by the Department of Homeland Security last October, has led to the seizure of some 40 thousand pounds of cocaine, worth around $600 million in street value, Gil said.

Unified Resolve was largely a reaction to the results of Operation Martillo, an earlier Homeland Security–coordinated endeavor that focused heat on smugglers in the southwestern Caribbean near the Central American coast.

"We believe this operation has pushed smugglers to take a more central route through the Caribbean," Gil said.

Somma, the Coast Guard spokesman, said that "Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are a lot closer to the United States," and traffickers "figure that if they can get there, they'll have an easier time getting into the U.S."