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The Coast Guard seized $569 million worth of drugs. The smugglers will be tried in Tampa Bay.

The Coast Guard stands watch as vessels seized for smuggling drugs are scuttled and sunk into the Pacific Ocean in May. [Coast Guard]
Published Jul. 11

The Coast Guard has seized more than half a billion dollars worth of cocaine in recent months in the Pacific Ocean. Many of the alleged smugglers will stand trial in the Tampa Bay area.

Federal officials said Thursday that about 39,000 pounds of cocaine and 933 pounds of marijuana was seized, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Carol Danko. The drugs were valued at $569 million.

The Coast Guard seized the drugs over 14 busts in the eastern Pacific Ocean between May and July, Danko said. Guardsmen also detained 55 alleged smugglers.

A significant portion of those seizures — roughly 85 percent of the cocaine — will be used as evidence in cases that will be tried in the U.S. Middle District of Florida in Tampa, said Homeland Security Investigations Tampa Special Agent in Charge James Spero. The Coast Guard, Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration all took part in the investigations.

These kinds of seizures happen regularly, Spero said, but he emphasized that they do make a difference.

"That's 39,000 pounds of cocaine that's not going to be poisoning U.S. communities," Spero said.

A majority of the cocaine comes from Central and South America and was on its way to Mexico or other Central American countries via the high seas, Spero said. Then smugglers would likely have tried to smuggle them across the U.S.'s southern border.

One mode of smuggling drugs are semi submersibles or "homemade submarines" designed to move drugs underwater, making it hard for law enforcement to find, Spero said. The technology to detect such vessels is improving, but it's still an ocean, Spero said.

"It's still difficult," Spero said. "It's like looking for a needle in a haystack."

It was not known how many defendants will be tried in federal court in Tampa. But not all of the 55 alleged smugglers will be prosecuted in the U.S., as 23 will be tried in other nations.

"We're starting with disruptions with the ultimate goal of dismantling the organization," Spero said.

Contact Ben Leonard at bleonard@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8421. Follow @Ben___Leonard.

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