TAMPA — One day last March, a U.S. Customs reconnaissance plane patrolling the Pacific Ocean southwest of Panama spotted a contraption that drug smugglers had gone to great lengths to hide.
About 40 feet long and painted a blue-green to match the sea, the vessel looked like a miniature submarine gliding just under the surface. A hatch and exhaust pipe cut through the waves.
Alerted to the sighting, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf steamed some 500 miles and launched two smaller boats to intercept the sub. Body cam footage shows maritime officers, guns drawn, flanking the boat as four drug smugglers hold their hands above their heads.
Stowed away in the cramped craft, officials said: bales of cocaine with a total weight of more than 12,800 pounds.
That case and hundreds like it are prosecuted in Tampa by the U.S. Attorney's Office Middle District as part of Operation Panama Express, an ongoing campaign by federal authorities to intercept drug shipments in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
Started in 2000, the operation is racking up convictions at a record pace.
In fiscal year 2015, the Coast Guard seized more than 319,000 pounds of cocaine and the Middle District prosecuted 61 of the interdiction cases, federal officials reported last week. The work resulted in more than 109 convictions for 77 defendants who were sentenced to more than 800 years in prison.
Officials say the uptick is the result of more than a decade's worth of coordination between the Middle District, the Coast Guard and other partner agencies.
On Thursday, Rear Admiral Pat DeQuattro, deputy commander for the Coast Guard's Pacific Area, presented 15 attorneys and support staff under U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley with the Distinguished Public Service Award in recognition of last year's results. It's the highest honor the service can bestow upon civilians other than its lifesaving awards.
"Our combined success has begotten further success," DeQuattro said, "resulting in historic years for both of our organizations."
After their capture by the Bertholf, the four smugglers caught aboard the semi-submersible vessel were brought to Tampa by the Coast Guard.
Federal law allows mariners arrested on the high seas to be prosecuted in the first district they arrive in after their arrest. The Middle District has been the designated prosecutor since the launch of Panama Express.
Since 2000, the district has prosecuted more than 500 cases with a conviction rate of more than 97 percent and an average prison term of 10 years, officials said.
The information gleaned during prosecution helps the Coast Guard, with limited ships and aircraft, battle what DeQuattro calls "the tyranny of distance." For Panama Express, the Coast Guard patrols a vast expanse of the eastern Pacific roughly the size of the continental United States.
"Without that intelligence from our interagency partners, we are patrolling in the blind," DeQuattro said.
The work begins far from shore, where smugglers from Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela try to make it undetected to points north, usually to an area of Central America stretching from Panama to Guatemala, or sometimes as far as Mexico, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Ruddy, who leads the Middle District's narcotics division and has been involved since the start of Panama Express. About 90 percent of the cocaine is ultimately destined for the United States.
When the operation first started, smugglers were using open-bow "panga" boats, fishing vessels and speed boats. About a decade ago, the semi-submersibles appeared, Ruddy said.
These custom-made contraptions can carry tons of cocaine and run almost entirely under surface, making them difficult to spot from the air and on radar. They are also easy to scuttle, allowing smugglers to quickly send the vessel and the drugs inside to the bottom of the sea. A law passed in 2008 allows authorities to prosecute anyone on the boat even if it's sunk.
"That was a gamechanger for us," Ruddy said, adding that the Middle District has prosecuted about 45 sub cases since 2006.
Most defendants are eager to cooperate in exchange for lighter sentences. But there are other hurdles, Bailey said, such as proving that suspects caught on fishing boats had knowledge of the hidden drugs.
"The bigger challenge is prosecuting the second- and third-tier cases, when we're going after the Colombian drug kingpins, relying on the testimony we gather from the mariners and then working up the chain from there," Bentley said. "We often have to gather foreign evidence and that has its own challenges."
But the office has had success there. From 2002 to 2011, intelligence gained from the trafficking cases contributed to the arrest and extradition of 75 percent of the task force's targeted Colombian drug king pins.
The effort can often feel like a high-stakes game of Whack-a-Mole, with new groups quickly filling voids created by successful prosecutions. But they say there is also clear evidence that the task force is preventing smaller trafficking groups from becoming the next Cali Cartel — so large they're nearly impossible to dismantle.
"These dangerous criminal organizations, if left unchecked, spread violence and instability throughout the western hemisphere and erode the rule of law," DeQuattro said. "They will stop at nothing to proliferate power and influence and have developed vast networks to do so which reach into nearly every one of our major cities."
The Coast Guard is aware of up to 90 percent of the drug shipments being trafficked across the ocean — who is sending them and where they are headed — but has the resources to nab 11 to 20 percent of them, said Lt. Donnie Brzuska, a Coast Guard spokesman.
"That's why the information we get from Panama Express is so important, so we can put steel on target," Brzuska said.
Officials also acknowledge the need to deal with America's insatiable craving for the drugs they're trying to keep from reaching U.S. shores.
"Demand is a huge problem in the United States," Ruddy said. "You want to attack it from both sides, and this is what we choose to do."
Five months after their capture, the four smugglers caught by the Bertholf last March pleaded guilty in a federal courtroom in Tampa. The charge: conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine while on board a vessel subject to U.S. jurisdiction.
U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Hernandez Covington approved plea agreements for the four men and meted out prison terms ranging from 15 to 19 years. The convictions will count toward the Middle District's 2016 numbers.
Already, the district is set to work or completed 71 interdiction cases, putting it on pace to set a new record.
On Thursday, in a 32nd floor conference room with an expansive view of downtown Tampa, DeQuattro thanked Bentley's team of attorneys and legal assistants after each accepted the public service award. Then the admiral presented Bentley a bright-orange life preserver from the Bertholf as a token of thanks.
The recognition is welcome, Ruddy said.
"Oftentimes you can get immersed in the day-to-day, week-to-week and the month-to-month, so it's nice to get something like this and say, wow, we did okay."
Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.