The U.S. Coast Guard unloaded about 18.5 tons of cocaine, seized in international waters in a series of interdictions, at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday. The federal agency estimated the value of the cocaine at about $500 million wholesale.
The Coast Guard, working with other U.S. agencies and law enforcement from other countries, seized the drugs from 15 separate, low-profile smuggling boats off the coasts of Mexico, Central and South America in the eastern Pacific Ocean during a period of a little over a month.
Together, the plastic-wrapped bails of cocaine weigh about as much as three male elephants and were offloaded with cranes at Port Everglades. The delivery also brought in 49 suspects, who will be prosecuted in South Florida.
The seizures illustrate the rise in cocaine smuggling in recent years. The Coast Guard’s counter-drug operations seized about 145 tons and detained 503 suspects in 2015. In 2016, that number increased to 201 tons and 585 suspects, and in 2017 to 225 tons and 708 suspects.
Between 2015 and 2017, the dollar value of the cocaine captured by the Coast Guard increased by more than 50 percent, from $4.3 billion to $6.6 billion.
The growing numbers are due to an increase in overall cocaine production, said Capt. Jeffrey Randall, who’s in charge of Cutter James, which seized the majority of the cocaine delivered Thursday.
The drugs often are headed from the South American countries where they are grown and produced to Central America or Mexico, where they are divided into smaller packages and become harder to track, officials said.
The volume of cocaine being smuggled by water is straining the Coast Guard’s resources, Randall said.
The Coast Guard can only address about 25 to 30 percent of the cocaine action it sees in the eastern Pacific, said Adm. Karl Schultz, Coast Guard Commandant.
“With more capacity, we could remove more drugs off the water,” Schultz said.
Thursday’s load was collected by eight cutters. Randall said that when a cutter detects a suspicious boat on the ocean, the Coast Guard asks its crew to stop. If it doesn’t, agents might shoot at it from a helicopter, then seize the narcotics and take the suspects into custody.
The seizure of the cocaine unloaded Thursday brought a morale boost for the Coast Guard, Randall said.
“It makes it pretty easy to go to work when you’re able to look at this and say, ‘You know what, what we did here made a difference, what we did potentially saved lives,’ ” he said.