First Caribbean drug sub bust

UPDATE: Paragraph three was updated to include Customs and Border Protection’s contributions to the drug interdiction operation, and paragraph five was updated to clarify the SPSS was the first Caribbean interdiction by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Coast Guardsmen offload drugs

Crewmembers from the Coast Guard Cutter Oak, homeported in Charleston, S.C., offload 15,000 pounds of cocaine worth more than $180 million at the Coast Guard Base Support Unit Miami, Aug. 2, 2011. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Tara Molle.

As America’s lead maritime law enforcement agency, the Coast Guard is a key player in preventing transnational threats from reaching the United States. This includes stopping large quantities of drugs from reaching the shorelines and spreading out across our nation. From the smuggling of opium on merchant ships by Chinese immigrants in 1870 to the bootlegging of alcohol during the Prohibition era, the Coast Guard has been on the scene curtailing maritime contraband smuggling and protecting American national interests on the seas.

Coast Guardsman stands guard

A petty officer from the Oak stands guard while crewmembers offload cocaine seized from self-propelled, semi-submersible interdicted in the western Caribbean Sea. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Tara Molle.

Over the years the maritime transit of illegal contraband has grown in size, scope and sophistication. Infiltration methods across the maritime borders continue to evolve as drug traffickers explore new ways of avoiding detection.

A single, well-executed bust not only hurts drug trafficking organizations, but it can also provide valuable intelligence for future counter drug missions. Recently, the 270-foot Coast Guard Cutter Seneca, a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft and a Customs and Border Protection P-3 aircraft interdicted a self-propelled, semi-submersible, also known as an SPSS, vessel in the western Caribbean Sea seizing almost seven metric tons of cocaine worth approximately $180 million.

“Medium-endurance cutters like the Seneca are built for sustained offshore patrols including those that require enhanced communications, and helicopter and pursuit boat operations such as this. They provide a key capability for the nation’s homeland security operations at sea and allow us to fight the threats to our homeland security before they arrive at our doorstep,” said Rear Adm. William Baumgartner, commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District headquartered in Miami.

SPSS interdiction video

Click on this image to watch a video of the self-propelled, semi-submersible interdiction in the western Caribbean Sea on July 13, and the subsequent offload of 15,000 pounds of cocaine Aug. 2. U.S. Coast Guard video.

While several SPSS vessels have been interdicted in the Eastern Pacific since they began appearing in 2006, this is the first SPSS seizure in the Caribbean by the U.S. Coast Guard. This case was also the first time the Coast Guard used divers to recover contraband because shortly after the suspected drug traffickers were detained, the SPSS sank.

“SPSS crews typically abandon and scuttle the vessels along with the drugs and any evidence of their illicit activities when detected by law enforcement authorities,” said Lou Orsini, senior maritime law enforcement advisor, Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement. “Prior to the passage of the Drug Vessel Trafficking Interdiction Act of 2008, this was a very effective means of avoiding prosecution for drug smuggling. However, this new law allowed for prosecution of suspected drug smugglers using these stealth vessels without having to risk officer safety to try to recover contraband from a sinking vessel. In this case, the relatively shallow depth in which the SPSS sank made it necessary for us to recover the drugs to prevent their recovery by the drug trafficking organization” Orsini added.

Diver recovers drug bales

The interdiction of an SPSS was the first of its kind in the Western Caribbean and the first case where divers recovered contraband from then sunken SPSS. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

To locate the SPSS on the ocean floor, the Coast Guard Cutter Oak – a 225-foot seagoing buoy tender, used its side scanning sonar to search for the submerged vessel. It then deployed Federal Bureau of Investigation dive teams to remove the drugs.

“The SPSS interdiction in the Caribbean shows that these transnational criminal organizations respond quickly to new tactics, techniques and procedures employed by law enforcement with rapid, creative changes to their operations requiring the Coast Guard to be equally adaptive,” said Orsini. “Our ability to rapidly recognize new trends and identify solutions to fight our adversaries is paramount to our success.”

This interdiction and recovery operation highlights the mission capabilities of the Coast Guard’s assets and people. As maritime threats continue to evolve, the Coast Guard stands ready to respond – forward deploying surface and air assets, leveraging international and domestic partnerships and preparing for contingencies to protect our homeland.

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22 Responses

  1. s.stephens says:

    Although this may be the first SPSS busted by USCG in the CARIB; the Colombian government busted one back in 94′and towed it back into Cartegena. The narcotics, SPSS, and personnel were all recovered.

  2. Dave says:

    As a former CG SONAR Tech, I always used to say “If the druggies ever start using submarines, we’ll nail ‘em!” Funny that this should come to pass. However, I had no idea that buoy tenders had side-scan SONAR…

  3. Fr. Russ Carmichael says:

    Great and wonderful job as always… I seem to remember other submersibles being towed in? Not as far back as 94; however a big deal in 2008 off the coast of Florida some place, may be in the Gulf? It is a great job and great work by relentless and dedicated folks that get little recognition for their work, by the country as a whole…

  4. Coastie1780 says:

    Doesn’t the Coast Guard have divers? Why would they use an FBI dive team?

  5. BRIG says:


  6. CWO3 Randy Litka says:

    Fantastic job to the Command & Crew of the OAK. Congrats on a nice bust!

  7. CrossFit1 says:


    The Coast Guard has divers, highly qualified and skilled ones. In a civilian bust, protecting the “crime scene” becomes of paramount importance, even when that crime scene is at the bottom of an ocean. Should the evidence becomes “tainted” it is inadmissable in a court or civilian trial. The FBI are among the very best at protecting crime scenes and securing chains of custody.

    Strong work Coast Guard and FBI!

  8. Ruisanchez says:

    Its nice to see what team works does, its not about who takes the credit or not. its just getting the job done.

  9. LT Connie Braesch says:

    S.Stephens, after fact checking your comment, I have updated the post to state that this was the first SPSS interdiction in the Caribbean by the U.S. Coast Guard.

    Lt. Connie Braesch
    Coast Guard public affairs

  10. Tim Hecht says:

    Last year Captain Aaron Davenport and his 378′ from Honolulu intercepted and recovered an SPSS loaded with drugs.

  11. LT Patrick Montgomery says:

    Coastie 1780, while Coast Guard divers could have performed the mission, the Coast Guard chose to employ the FBI Technical Dive Team because their primary mission is evidence recovery and the agencies were conducting an active investigation.

    Patrick Montgomery, LT, USCG
    Public Affairs Officer
    Seventh Coast Guard District

  12. Ken Andersen says:

    I can’t thank LCDR Pete Niles and the officers and crew of OAK enough. It was the right platform, and the crew was so accommodating and professional…what a pleasure to work with!

  13. CAPT Al Arsenault says:

    The CGC Oak does not have an installed side scan sonar capability. In this case, the Coast Guard Research & Development Center was called in to deploy our Underwater Imager System (UIS). The UIS provides high resolution 3D imagery created from the processing of HF sonar signals. We are currently in the process of operationalizing this capability for continued field use.

  14. D.Varela says:

    Semper Fidelis, I used to work in the USCGC SENECA, Great job to all you and I never regret to be a former mate, I had a wonderful time, congrats and my sincerely respect. At D.Varela

  15. BM2 Waller says:

    Awesome work guys. Its things like this that makes me proud to be a Coastie. I used to be on CGC Mohawk, I know about those square grouper. Keep up the good work.

  16. Mean Green says:

    I dont know why anyone here would post their complete name and their rank. I must say that the coasties are a good group of guys and gals trying hard to protect our coasts. Good Job guys!

  17. John says:

    I thought the first SPSS busted in the Caribbean was by JIATF-S? This SPSS now sits at US Southern Command.

  18. SA RIVER says:

    It was CBP Air and Marine who spotted the vessel, then they notified the Coast Guard, so lets not leave out US Customs Air & Marine.

  19. T. Augustine Lo says:

    Thank you for posting this excellent news. It is great to see DHS maritime drug interdiction at its best.

    However, I suggest omitting the words “Chinese immigrants” in your lead paragraph. I do not question that the first Coast Guard drug interdiction involved Chinese migrants. Rather, the ethnic reference is unnecessary and it unfortunately hearkens back to the days of Chinese Exclusion and associated stereotypes. If read incorrectly, the lead paragraph could suggest criminality on the part of all Chinese immigrants during that era, just as all “bootleggers” necessarily smuggled alcohol. Thank you for your attention to this concern.

  20. MITCH says:

    Lets not forget about the helo involved. Where do you think the video footage came from? HITRON !!!

  21. tom says:

    Article failed to mention Honduras and it’s navy. In joint ventures all participants should be acknowledged.

  22. LT Connie Braesch says:

    Tom, thank you for your engagement and interest in this successful drug interdiction case. While the blog post does link to the news release that gives the full account of the interdiction including appreciation for the support and cooperation of Honduran authorities including the Honduran Navy, the focus of this post was on the U.S. Coast Guard, our maritime law enforcement mission and how we adapt and overcome challenges. If it weren’t for our international partnerships and interagency coordination, we would not be as successful.

    Lt. Connie Braesch
    Coast Guard public affairs

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