Coast Guard unloads 18 tons of cocaine seized on the high seas – The San Diego Union-Tribune

On lookout duty on the deck of the Coast Guard cutter Waesche, Seaman Danielle Sanchez remembers spotting what looked like a silver barracuda gliding low through waves off the Central American coast.

It was after 2 a.m. on June 8, and Sanchez was nearing the end of her first sea patrol. It was a journey across 12,200 miles of the Eastern Pacific and it led her to a rendezvous with what counter-smuggling agencies call an LPV a low-profile vessel designed by drug cartels to ride low to the water, aiming to hide from Coast Guard helicopters and cutters.

The Waesche stalked this LPV for nearly 100 miles.

When we came up on them, we put the floodlights on them. It looked like a submarine. It was dark out, but it was super cool. Our boat crew was out there, both the small boat thats hanging out on the side and the one on the fantail, Sanchez said, pointing to the sleek interceptor vessel at the rear of the cutter.

The Coasties boarded the submerged boat 54 feet long and only six feet wide and detained four suspected smugglers and 2.79 tons of cocaine, the second-highest seizure at sea by the Coast Guard since October.

On Thursday at San Diegos 10th Avenue Marine Terminal, the Alameda-based Waesche unloaded that seizure and 15 more tons of cocaine seized in 17 other raids at sea since March by it and the cutters Valiant, Hamilton, Confidence, Active, Mohawk, Campbell and Dependable.

Called the Western Hemisphere Transit Zone, the area that the cutters patrolled is vast 6 million square miles, double the size of the continental United States. It runs from California down the western coast of Central and South America and then into the Caribbean Sea in an arc from Cuba to the Lesser Antilles, the string of islands south and east from Puerto Rico to Venezuela.

Counter-narcotics officials estimate that they seize about one out of every four tons of cocaine bound for the United States. About 69 percent of the haul is intercepted in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.

Federal drug-enforcement officials believe about 90 percent of cocaine shipments to the United States go across the sea at some point in their journey north, but usually are offloaded and then smuggled across the land border with Mexico.

The Coast Guards strategy is to forward deploy cutters to the waters off Central and South America to nab smugglers soon after they take to sea.

The Waesche alone interdicted seven narco-boats during its latest mission, capturing about $266 million worth of drugs, according to the cutters commander, Capt. James Passarelli.

In one 60-hour span, the cutter captured four smuggling boats, reflecting an operational tempo thats doubled for the Coast Guard since 2008.

This is about taking down the networks, Passarelli said. These transnational criminal organizations pose a significant threat to us here at home and to our partners in Central and South America.

In the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, the Coast Guard set a record for annual cocaine seizures more than 221 tons worth more than $5.9 billion to the underworld.

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Coast Guard unloads 18 tons of cocaine seized on the high seas - The San Diego Union-Tribune

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