In the zone: A crew’s determination ‘over the horizon’ Part 1

Cocaine seizures prevent drugs from reaching America’s streets, but they also deliver a blow to the wallet and influence of transnational organized crime groups. Without the Coast Guard and its partners, hundreds of millions of dollars would flow past U.S. borders and fuel these crime-terror-insurgency organizations.

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This blog is part of a series leading up to the offload of more than 66,100 pounds of cocaine worth $1.01 billion wholesale seized in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. This will be one of the largest known cocaine offloads in Coast Guard history. The drugs were seized in 37 separate interdictions by U.S. Coast Guard cutters and Coast Guard law enforcement teams operating from U.S. Navy vessels in known drug transit zones near Central and South America. As part of the offload, Coast Guard men and women will turn over 21,000 pounds of cocaine seized by the crew of Stratton during the interdiction of two different self-propelled semi-submersibles.

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone

A Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team investigates a self-propelled semi-submersible interdicted in international waters off the coast of Central America, July 19, 2015. The Stratton’s crew recovered more than 6 tons of cocaine from the 40-foot vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone.
A Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team investigates a self-propelled semi-submersible interdicted in international waters off the coast of Central America, July 19, 2015. The Stratton’s crew recovered more than 6 tons of cocaine from the 40-foot vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone.

It’s been a long week, which began July 10. The Coast Guard Cutter Stratton’s crew hasn’t gone a single night without an alarm sounding that launches the crew in the search for smuggling vessels attempting to sneak contraband to America’s shores.

These smuggling vessels are just one of tool transnational organized criminal networks use to bleed $750 million from the world’s economy each year. Their illicit activities include human, drug and weapons trafficking; terrorism; piracy, environmental crime; intellectual property theft; and cyber-crime.

The entire crew toils throughout the day and night to stop these threats: steering the ship, launching helicopters and boats, tracking contacts, coordinating with other U.S. assets, maintaining the engines and even cooking meals. The days away from home are long, and the nights can be even longer.

Finally, there’s a moment of peace.

The ship’s engines power down to a steady low hum, and a quiet falls over 418-foot white Coast Guard cutter as it patrols among the dark waves of the Eastern Pacific. But, the rest is short-lived.

“Go fast, go fast, go fast,” echoes throughout the ship and sounds the beginning of another chase.

A suspected smuggling vessel has been sighted. The Stratton’s turbine growls and its diesel engines roar to life.

The operations officer, Lt. Cmdr. Scott Rae, follows up with the next announcement, “Crew, this is Ops, I just want to give you an update on the situation developing…”

Looking at the faces of the crew one could expect to see bleary, weary and sleep deprived Coast Guard men and women, rather these shipmates are fighting to contain their excitement as they intently listen to the case details.

Coast Guard Cutter Stratton patrols the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.
Coast Guard Cutter Stratton patrols the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

“This is what makes the long hours and the time away from family worth it; this validates why we are here,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Hylan Rousseau, Stratton’s primary law enforcement pursuit coxswain. “Everyone is eager [for the next interdiction] because these missions make a difference. It’s why we serve.”

Although the pace had quickened in the past week, the crew and their partner cutters have systematically seized nearly 30 tons of cocaine in the past two months.

The Stratton’s small boats and a helicopter crew from the Coast Guard Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron, based in Jacksonville, Florida, rush to surround the suspected smuggling vessel, encircling it as it attempts to flee.

There’s no escape.

Coast Guard boarding team charges aboard the vessel and asserts control over the suspected smugglers. Then, they begin the process of seizing the cocaine and building a case package to prosecute the smugglers.

Using the Coast Guard’s unique capabilities and authorities as a military service and a law enforcement agency, Coast Guard men and women interdict bulk shipments of cocaine near its source. They disrupt transnational organized crime networks and defend America from a path of criminal destruction that is rampaging toward its shores.

“The record high homicide rates just south of the United States, in the Caribbean as well as South and Central America, are disturbing indicators of the destabilizing effects of transnational organized crime,” said Vice Adm. Charles W. Ray, commander of Coast Guard Pacific Area. “Illegal drug networks are breeding grounds for all types of trafficking and profit fueled violence.”

During the last 60 days, the Stratton’s crew seized or disrupted more than $540 million of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific.

Cocaine seizures prevent drugs from reaching America’s streets, but they also deliver a blow to the wallet and influence of transnational organized crime groups. Without the Coast Guard and its partners, hundreds of millions of dollars would flow past U.S. borders and fuel these crime-terror-insurgency organizations.

Many hours later, the suspected smugglers are processed, and the drugs are secured aboard the Stratton. The crew retrieves the boats, stores the helicopter and secures their weapons. The cutter’s turbine cools as the diesel engines ease into a slow stalking pace as the crew retires to their quarters.

A short while later, a voice resonates over the cutter’s loudspeaker

“In a minute, you’ll hear the engines pick up again,” Rae says. “We’ve been asked to identify an unknown contact.”

And with that, the Stratton heads off into the night. Little did the crew know they were hours away from one of the largest maritime cocaine busts in Coast Guard history.

A Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team member inspects the bridge of a self-propelled semi-submersible interdicted in international waters off the coast of Central America, July 19, 2015. The Stratton’s crew recovered more than six tons of cocaine from the 40-foot vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone.
A Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team member inspects the bridge of a self-propelled semi-submersible interdicted in international waters off the coast of Central America, July 19, 2015. The Stratton’s crew recovered more than six tons of cocaine from the 40-foot vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone.

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