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C.G. takes aim at drug smugglers

The agency has seized more than $7 billion worth of illegal drugs this year

The agency has seized more than $7 billion worth of illegal drugs this year

It’s been a bumper year for Coast Guard drug busts, with two recent interceptions in a week nabbing nearly 8,000 pounds of cocaine after gunners on helicopters shot out the engines of drug-laden go-fast boats.

On Oct. 8 a Navy P-3 patrol aircraft working for Homeland Security spotted a blue 40-foot high-performance boat with triple outboards speeding across the Colombian Basin with four crewmembers aboard. The boat, an Eduardono built in Medellin, Colombia, is the one that Colombian smugglers prefer for offshore operations, says Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer Anastasia Burns.

The Navy aircraft put the 378-foot cutter Gallatin on the scent of the go-fast. The Gallatin — a Charleston, S.C.-based cutter on drug, migrant and Homeland Security duty in the Caribbean — dispatched its Sting Ray pursuit helicopter to find and stop the suspected drug boat. The Sting Ray carries a gunner, and a 50-caliber sniper rifle and M-60 machine gun for persuading suspected drug boats to stop. Burns says the chopper crew used a hailer to order the Eduardono to heave to, and when it refused the gunner fired warning shots across the go-fast’s bow. When it still wouldn’t stop, the gunner shot out the engines.

A law-enforcement team from the Gallatin drew alongside the suspected drug boat in a rigid-hull inflatable, two of the team members boarding with sidearms drawn while the others trained M-16s on the crew. They found 58 bales — 3,880 pounds — of cocaine aboard. The boarding team cuffed the smugglers, took them and the cocaine aboard the Gallatin, and scuttled the drug boat. The cocaine was transferred to another cutter, which off-loaded the bales in Key West. The drug boat’s crew was put on a second cutter and taken to St. Petersburg. Just six days earlier the gunner on Gallatin’s Sting Ray had shot out the engines of another 40-foot Eduardono, leading to another 4,000-pound cocaine seizure and the arrest of four more smugglers.

Burns says the drugs on both boats likely were headed from Colombia to a third country, possibly the Dominican Republic, where they would be unloaded and smuggled into the United States by other means.

“The amount of drugs that we have seized this year far surpasses what we’ve seized any year before now,” Burns says. Before these busts the Coast Guard put its 2004 tally at 57,000 pounds of cocaine and 23,000 pounds of marijuana seized — $7 billion worth of illegal drugs — and 124 people arrested in 38 interdictions. Burns attributed this success to better intelligence, more interagency cooperation, and better tools for catching smugglers.

The Gallatin’s Sting Ray is part of a Jacksonville, Fla.-based Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron that helped seize 47,000 pounds of cocaine and 5,600 pounds of marijuana in 2003. Eduardonos center consoles are popular in Latin America as work and pleasure boats, but smugglers also like them. The United States recently gave Panama four refurbished Eduardonos for use in drug patrols after seizing them in anti-drug operations.