Coast Guard intercepts drug sub with 7 tons of cocaine worth $180 million

ST. PETERSBURG — One by one, crew members lugged the bales of cocaine off the U.S. Coast Guard cutter, neatly stacking them on the dock.

When they had finished Friday afternoon, nearly 7 tons of cocaine worth roughly $180 million rested on top of pallets.

It's an amount equal to roughly a third of what law enforcement pulls off the streets in a year in the United States.

But there's one big difference.

All of this came from a single self-propelled semisubmersible vessel Coast Guard officials say they stopped near the coast of Honduras on Sept. 30.

"We want to get the drugs wholesale," said Rear Adm. Bill Baumgartner, commander of the 7th Coast Guard District.

The use of the semisubmersible vessels to smuggle narcotics is not that uncommon in the drug-trafficking world, but it's a new threat in the Caribbean, the Coast Guard said.

It's only the third such interdiction in Caribbean waters to date. The first stop came July 13; the other, Sept. 17.

"This definitely shows a new trend in drug-smuggling technique," said Coast Guard Lt. Patrick Montgomery. "It's a new thing for us."

Until this point, the vessels, known as drug subs, were primarily found in the eastern Pacific. There have been roughly three dozen interdictions in those waters.

The semisubmersible boats, typically built in the jungles and remote areas of South America, cost about $600,000 to $1 million to make. They're usually around 100 feet long and can hold four or five crew members and 10 metric tons of cargo. They can travel 5,000 miles.

It was unclear why the vessels are starting to pop up in new waters, Baumgartner said.

The Coast Guard said it stopped the drug sub in the western Caribbean Sea after a maritime patrol aircraft spotted a suspicious vessel and notified the Coast Guard cutter Mohawk.

A helicopter based on the Mohawk, along with a pursuit boat, stopped the boat and detained the crew. As this was happening, the drug sub's crew scuttled the vessel. The vessel and its contraband sank to the sea floor.

On Oct. 17, the cutter Cypress went looking for the sunken drug sub. Using sonar, searchers found it on Oct. 19. An FBI team of 14 divers went down to the drug sub, which had come to rest less than 100 feet under water.

The team cut through the sub's exterior, and two divers at a time removed the bales of cocaine by sending them up a rope to a person on the surface. It took a week to remove all of the cocaine.

Baumgartner said it's important to stop drugs close to where they originate. He said you see larger amounts of drugs and hit traffickers harder.

"They also don't have the chance to land the drugs in another country, repackage it and then ship them out again. Whenever the drugs touch land someplace, it's corrosive."

The drug stops are only a part of the overall picture of drug smuggling.

Baumgartner said the Coast Guard in the Southeastern United States and Caribbean and its partners have detained 98 smugglers and prevented 60,064 pounds of cocaine and 4,412 pounds of marijuana worth $727 million from hitting the streets.

Still, much more gets through.

"Our job is to try to hit them hard enough so that it puts a bite on them," he said. "But we don't pretend that seizures like this stop all of their cocaine coming through. There's so much.

"We need more resources to hit them harder."

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@sptimes.com.

Coast Guard members stack 121 bales of cocaine Friday in St. Petersburg. Drug runners off Honduras scuttled a vessel with 7 tons of the drug. 

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Coast Guard members stack 121 bales of cocaine Friday in St. Petersburg. Drug runners off Honduras scuttled a vessel with 7 tons of the drug. 

Coast Guard intercepts drug sub with 7 tons of cocaine worth $180 million 10/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 28, 2011 10:39pm]

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