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U.S. stops vessel carrying $180M worth of cocaine

MIAMI — U.S. authorities intercepted a submarine-like craft carrying roughly $180 million of cocaine off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, the Coast Guard said Monday.

Semi-submersible vessels are regularly used to smuggle drugs along Central America's Pacific Coast. U.S. and Honduran authorities said last week's seizure was the first time they had intercepted one of the vessels in Caribbean waters.

With help from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection airplane on patrol, the Coast Guard cutter Seneca found the self-propelled sub July 13 off Honduras' sparsely populated province of Gracias a Dios, near the Nicaraguan border.

The fiberglass craft sank during the interdiction, though U.S. authorities were able to detain its five-member crew and recover some of the drugs on board, said Coast Guard officials in Miami.

The Coast Guard, FBI dive teams and the Honduran navy made multiple searches for the sunken sub, until the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Oak found it Tuesday using side-sonar equipment, the Coast Guard said.

An FBI dive team recovered nearly 71/2 tons of cocaine worth roughly $180 million from the sub, the Coast Guard said.

The sub was floating about 50 feet below the surface, Honduran authorities said over the weekend.

The drugs and the sub's crew will be turned over to U.S. law enforcement. The case remains under investigation.

"The U.S. Coast Guard greatly appreciates the support and cooperation of the Honduran authorities as we worked together to recover the drugs" from the vessel, said Capt. Brendan McPherson, Seventh Coast Guard District chief of enforcement. "In addition, the technical expertise of the FBI dive team was instrumental in the success of this unique operation in international waters, far from U.S. shores, that ultimately prevented tons of cocaine from reaching our streets and neighborhoods."

Semi-submersible crafts, which partly remain above the surface of the water, are typically built in Colombia and are less than 100 feet in length, U.S. officials said. The vessels can carry four or five crew members and up to 10 metric tons of illegal drugs over distances up to 5,000 miles.

"Our goal is to interdict cocaine at sea when it is still concentrated in large loads before those drugs can be broken into small loads and smuggled across our border with Mexico," said Rear Adm. William Baumgartner, commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District in Miami.

U.S. stops vessel carrying $180M worth of cocaine 08/01/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 1, 2011 5:49pm]
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