Pubdate: Tue, 11 Aug 2015
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Authors: Lyndsay Winkley and Gretel C. Kovach


Coast Guard Arrives With Largest Delivery During Unprecedented Year 
for Confiscating the Narcotic

The Coast Guard unloaded more than $1 billion worth of cocaine Monday 
at San Diego Naval Base - its largest-ever delivery of the narcotic - 
as federal officials announced a record-breaking year for seizures of 
illegal drugs intercepted far offshore from Latin America.

During the past 10 months, the Coast Guard and its partners from the 
Navy, federal law enforcement and allied nations teamed up to 
apprehend 215 suspected smugglers in the eastern Pacific Ocean and 
confiscate more than 119,000 pounds of cocaine. The estimated street 
value of the haul is about $1.8 billion.

The seizures this fiscal year are already the largest since 2009, 
with more drugs interdicted near Central and South America than the 
three previous years combined.

The crackdown coincides with a surge since September of Coast Guard 
vessels patrolling near the world's cocaine-growing region of 
Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

Tighter coordination among international stakeholders in the 
counter-drug campaign is another factor, as well as competition among 
cartels in Latin America and the Caribbean vying for control of 
maritime trafficking routes.

The power struggle has contributed to rising instability, record-high 
homicide rates in Central and South America and the flow of 
unaccompanied children heading to the U.S.-Mexico border, federal 
officials said.

Crew members of the Alameda-based Stratton, a high-tech, long-range 
cutter commissioned in 2012, stopped at the San Diego base after a 
four-month operation. They unloaded wooden pallets strapped with more 
than 66,000 pounds of pure cocaine, which amounts to about 33 million 
lines of cocaine or 336 million hits of crack, according to Drug 
Enforcement Agency estimates.

The drug was seized by personnel on Coast Guard and Navy vessels 
during dozens of interdictions off the coast of Central and South 
America that involved a variety of vessels, including fishing boats, 
pangas and two drug-running submarines.

On July 18, for instance, a Navy maritime patrol aircraft helped the 
Stratton crew locate a 40-foot, "self-propelled, semi-submersible 
vessel" carrying more than 16,000 pounds of cocaine. Such low-profile 
vessels, with just a cockpit and an exhaust pipe visible above water, 
are extremely difficult to detect, according to the Coast Guard.

"Every one of these bricks of cocaine is destined for the United 
States. Four hundred metric tons is consumed in our country each 
year," Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, said at a 
dockside news conference.

The impact of the seizures will be felt far beyond U.S. streets, however.

"The cultivation, trafficking and distribution of narcotics fuels 
violence and instability throughout the Western Hemisphere, leaving a 
path of destruction directly to the doorstep of the U.S. We must 
continue to make progress in our effort to combat transnational 
organized-crime networks to ensure safety and security in our 
hemisphere," Zukunft said.

To circumvent tighter security at the U.S.-Mexico border, drug 
traffickers are increasingly taking to the ocean to reach U.S. 
markets. In response, the effort to roll back the tide of illicit 
drugs heading to American shores involves multiple agencies.

On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson praised the 
Stratton crew members for their performance during the operation.

"The mission also reflects an impressive level of cooperation between 
the U.S. Coast Guard, law enforcement and intelligence agencies in 
the U.S., Canada and other partner nations," he said in a statement.

In the eastern Pacific, where shipments of large, uncut bundles of 
cocaine are big business, a U.S. inter-agency task force participates 
in an international anti-drug mission called Operation Martillo, or 
Operation Hammer.

Under its Western Hemisphere Strategy, the Coast Guard has increased 
U.S. and allied patrols along drug-transit zones in the eastern 
Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Basin.

It regularly sends San Diego Coast Guard cutters and Navy frigates on 
three- and four-month patrols off the western coasts of Ecuador, 
Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica.

The United States' Customs and Border Protection agency also operates 
in that area, where it began extended flights this year of the 
Guardian surveillance drone - a maritime version of the Predator made 
by General Atomics of San Diego.

Federal drug enforcement and Coast Guard officials declined to give 
names of individuals or cartels involved in the recent cocaine 
shipments that were busted.

But the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego has been working more 
closely with maritime agencies so its prosecutions can harness more 
of the information gathered by those entities.

Laura Duffy, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, 
has said her office partners with districts in Florida and Puerto 
Rico to go after all smuggling cases with merit.

"Over the past year, this district has taken a stronger, more active 
interest in these eastern Pacific cases," Duffy said in April after 
another big drug bust. "As we see more smugglers taking to the seas 
. my office has also redoubled our efforts and increased the 
resources we are adding to this problem."

Despite the Coast Guard's record-breaking cocaine haul this year, 
there is still work to be done, Zukunft said.

"We can only act on 30 percent of known drug shipments in the eastern 
Pacific and Caribbean," he said. "We must increase already 
hard-earned momentum to curb the rising tide of crime, violence and 
instability in our hemisphere."



Estimated street value of cocaine confiscated during the past 10 months
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom