What happened when a Coast Guard law enforcement detachment and medium endurance cutter teamed up with a U.S. Navy frigate and Customs and Border Protection? A total of 168 bales of cocaine, worth more than $135 million, never made it on to the streets of America.
Occurring during a two-month period, the five separate interdictions were a result of Operation Martillo. Spanish for “hammer,” Operation Martillo, is a U.S., European and Western Hemisphere effort targeting illicit trafficking routes in coastal waters along Central America.
The first of the interdictions occurred with the USS Elrod, a 453-foot Navy guided missile frigate. The Elrod and an embarked Coast Guard law enforcement detachment team were on patrol in the Caribbean Sea March 20 when a Customs and Border Protection airplane detected a suspicious vessel and directed crewmembers towards the fishing vessel. When the vessel was boarded, they found 18 bales of cocaine and detained four suspects who were transferred to law enforcement agents in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Exactly a month later, while still patrolling in the Caribbean, a Customs and Border Protection airplane detected a go-fast vessel and vectored crewmembers aboard Elrod to it. Altogether, crewmembers recovered 89 bales of contraband aboard the go-fast, later testing positive for cocaine.
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Coast Guard Cutter Legare made two go-fast interdictions in a 48-hour period, again with the help of Customs and Border Protection. A helicopter crew from the Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron, or HITRON, spotted a go-fast vessel with three crewmembers aboard and bales on deck. Crewmembers from Legare were able to recover four bales and one kilogram of cocaine from the water.
“The ability of flight deck equipped ships combined with HITRON capabilities is a robust force multiplier in counternarcotics strategy,” said Cmdr. Kevin Carroll, commanding officer of Legare. “This well-matched combination of assets allows us to effectively and efficiently interdict drugs in the transit zone, far from U.S. shores.”
“Interdiction here, in the open ocean, is important because we’re preventing the drugs from ever reaching land where loads are typically dispersed into smaller shipments for transport via land borders and are more difficult to detect.”
Just five days later there was still time for one more drug bust as a Customs and Border Protection airplane detected another go-fast vessel and directed crewmembers aboard Elrod to it. The Coast Guard law enforcement detachment team, attached to the Elrod, boarded the vessel, located 10 loose kilograms of cocaine and retrieved 57 bales of cocaine from the water. Five suspects were detained and later transferred to law enforcement agents in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Coast Guard and partner agencies continue to do well in the challenging drug interdiction mission but modern and more capable vessels are increasingly required to combat emerging threats.
The decades-old medium endurance cutters are slated for replacement by a new class of cutters – the offshore patrol cutter. With the ability to operate more than 50 miles from land, the offshore patrol cutter will be a multi-mission ship, providing pursuit boat and helicopter capabilities and interoperability with other military and federal partners.
It takes existing partnerships and dedicated crews to meet the demands of the drug interdiction mission. And whether crews interdict illicit cargo from the rising threat of drug subs, or find success interdicting drugs smuggled in via more traditional methods, their partnerships reap huge rewards in a safer more secure nation.