In the zone: $848 million seized, 144 suspected smugglers apprehended

Vice Adm. Charles Michel, deputy commandant for operations, speaks at a press conference at Naval Base San Diego. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell.

Vice Adm. Charles Michel, deputy commandant for operations, speaks at a press conference at Naval Base San Diego. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell.

Written by Vice Adm. Charles Michel, Deputy Commandant for Operations

Our Nation faces significant threats posed by transnational organized crime networks. One only has to look to recent news headlines to see the effects of these violent organizations: mass killings in Mexico, a flood of unaccompanied minors seeking refuge at our southern border and instability and record high homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere. These are just a few examples of the devastation these criminal organizations leave in their wake. They seek only power and profit by terrorizing and controlling innocent people. Their primary method of funding their criminal activities is the illicit drug trade.

Crews work to offload more than 28,000 pounds of cocaine off Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell.

Crews work to offload more than 28,000 pounds of cocaine off Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell.

Today the Coast Guard and its interagency partners marked an important milestone in our Nation’s fight against dangerous transnational organized crime. Several of my colleagues and I welcomed back the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell to Naval Base San Diego following a 79-day counter-narcotics deployment in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The crew returned with more 28,000 pounds of cocaine worth more than over $424 million wholesale that was seized by Coast Guardsmen operating from numerous cutters, U.S. Navy ships and Royal Canadian Navy ships in the drug transit zone off the coast of Central and South America.

During the offload, we announced record drug seizure rates in the Eastern Pacific. In just six months, Coast Guardsmen have already interdicted more drugs in the Eastern Pacific than they did in all of fiscal year 2014. That already makes this fiscal year the most successful year in counter drug operations in the Eastern Pacific since 2009 with more than 56,000 pounds of cocaine worth over $848 million wholesale seized and 101 suspected smugglers apprehended.

The Coast Guard didn’t do it alone. It takes a network to defeat a network. We have closely partnered with military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the U.S., Canada and other partner nations to stem the flow of illegal narcotics. The Coast Guard recently released its Western Hemisphere Strategy, which refocuses Coast Guard efforts on ensuring stability, security, and prosperity. As part of our strategy, we have increased U.S. and allied presence in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Basin, which are known drug transit zones near Central and South America.

I was joined by Vice Adm. Kenneth Floyd, commander, U.S. Navy 3rd Fleet; Rear Adm. W.S. Truelove, commander, Royal Canadian Navy Maritime Pacific; Ms. Laura Duffy, U.S. Attorney, Southern District California; and Mr. Lothar Eckardt, Executive Director, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine, National Air Security Operations.

Through collaborative efforts with these and many other of our Nation’s leaders, we have increased the number of military and law enforcement personnel serving on the frontlines in the drug transit zones by sea and air. Expert coordination by U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force South provides detection and monitoring in the transit zone and synchronization across our surface and air fleet allowing us to effectively act on information provided by the national intelligence community.

There is no better example of this interagency and international cooperation than an 11,000-pound seizure from a coastal freighter by U.S. and allied forces in the Eastern Pacific in early March 2015, which is the single largest maritime drug seizure since 2009. Crews from the USS Gary from Naval Base San Diego, a Royal Canadian Navy ship, Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell, and Coast Guard Tactical Law Enforcement Teams from Miami and San Diego combined forces to apprehend 14 suspected smugglers and recover the narcotics, which the smugglers had thrown overboard.

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell stands during a press conference at Naval Base San Diego. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell.

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell stands during a press conference at Naval Base San Diego. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell.

The effort to tear down these criminal networks doesn’t stop in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean. U.S. prosecutors work tirelessly with agents from the DEA, FBI, ICE and many others to bring suspected smugglers to justice while providing valuable intelligence about the organization and operations of transnational criminal networks. Prosecution and intelligence gathering are likewise crucial steps in breaking the cycle of illicit trafficking.

Today is an important victory for our Nation, yet there are challenges on the horizon as we redouble our effort to rid the Western Hemisphere of transnational organized crime. Even with increased Coast Guard, Navy, Canadian and Customs and Border Protection assets, we still only act on 20 percent of our actionable intelligence due to resource constraints; further complicating this mission, Coast Guardsmen are conducting 21st century operations from Vietnam-era cutters. The crew of Boutwell operates a vessel that is almost 50 years old, which makes integration with international, military and law enforcement partners in Eastern Pacific difficult at best. Across the board budget cuts known as “sequestration” could also reduce the number of available U.S. Department of Defense resources involved in this mission.

One of our top priorities is the recapitalization of the Coast Guard’s major cutter fleet to build a 21st century Coast Guard so our servicemembers can continue to lead our Nation’s efforts in maritime law enforcement in the drug transit zones. We owe it to the people of the United States to ensure our Coast Guardsmen have the resources they need to serve the Nation now and into the future.

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