Written by Lt. Donnie Brzuska
July 6 – The Coast Guard Cutter Stratton is on a routine patrol in the Eastern Pacific Ocean when the monitors in the operations center begin to flash. A transmission begins to create a buzz throughout the room – a maritime patrol aircraft detects a self-propelled semi-submersible sea craft, SPSS.
These craft lurk just above the surface cloaked by the sea. They’re hard to detect and carry massive quantities of illegal narcotics.
Two cutter small boats are launched to intercept the target. The hunt is a short one as the Coast Guard teams swarm around the camouflaged sea-green boat.
The Coast Guard boarding team members leap aboard the smooth back of the semi-submersible. They quickly throw open the hatch, extract the crew and secure the vessel. They have positive control.
The Coast Guardsmen located a second target of interest in the vicinity of the SPSS. An advance team in a smuggling vessel known as a “go-fast” was attempting to rendezvous with the semisubmersible to offload more than 13,000 pounds of cocaine from the SPSS. The crew detained the suspects aboard the SPSS and go-fast for conspiring to possess five kilograms or more of cocaine with the intent to distribute it while onboard a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.
More than 13,000 pounds of drugs is out of the hands of dangerous transnational organized crime groups and seven suspected smugglers were apprehended. The story could end there, but it doesn’t.
It’s only the beginning of what is a more prolonged and coordinated effort to identify, disrupt and dismantle the most serious drug trafficking and money laundering organizations and those primarily responsible for the nation’s drug supply.
The majority of Coast Guard drug smuggling cases are investigated and prosecuted by an interagency team from the U.S. Attorney’s Office Middle District of Florida and Operation Panama Express South. These efforts have increased knowledge and understanding of the operations of transnational organized crime networks leading to follow-on drug seizures by the Coast Guard and its interagency partners.
“We enjoy a level of interoperability with this team that is tough to rival and difficult to replicate,” said Rear Admiral Pat DeQuattro, deputy commander, Coast Guard Pacific Area. “It is a team that has been forged and tested over years of counterdrug operations, investigations and prosecutions.”
The Tampa-based interagency team has investigated and prosecuted more than 60 cases from one of the most successful fiscal years in cocaine removal for the Coast Guard, which ran from Oct. 1, 2014, to Sept. 30, 2015. The team’s efforts resulted in more than 109 convictions for 77 defendants who were sentenced to over 813 years in prison.
In Fiscal Year 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa prosecuted a record number, 61, of the Coast Guard’s interdictions. In Fiscal Year 2016, the Coast Guard has already surpassed last year’s record-breaking year with 71 interdictions presented to Middle District Florida attorneys for prosecution.
The interagency team prosecuted numerous high-profile cases from Fiscal Year 2015. Most notably, the July 6 case by Cutter Stratton, but they also prosecuted three other SPSS interdictions, which made national headlines. This is due to the proactive stance the Middle District of Florida and Operation Panama Express South take regarding transparency in law enforcement operations. Prosecutors at the Middle District of Florida and agents from Operation Panama Express South meticulously reviewed each press release, blog, photo and video prior to being issued by the Coast Guard to protect operational security, preserve the integrity of the U.S. law enforcement investigation, and ensure a fair and objective trial for the accused. This greatly contributed to public understanding of Coast Guard law enforcement operations.
Since January 2000, the United States Attorney’s Office and Panama Express have prosecuted almost 500 of the Coast Guard’s maritime drug interdictions in the Tampa Division. With a conviction rate of over 97 percent and sentences averaging over 10 years, the team has substantially contributed to the nation’s counter-drug effort by reducing the flow of cocaine from Central and South America to the United States and dismantling transnational organized crime transportation and supply networks.
Information received during drug smuggling cases is regularly used to target the leaders of transnational organized crime networks. From 2002 to 2011, intelligence gained from Coast Guard drug trafficking cases contributed to the arrest and extradition of 75 percent of all Colombian Consolidated Priority Organizational Targets, or “drug kingpins.”
For their efforts, members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Middle District of Florida and Operation Panama Express South received the Coast Guard Distinguished Public Service Award at a ceremony at Middle District of Florida Headquarters in Tampa, Thursday. The Coast Guard Distinguished Public Service Award is the highest honor or award the service can bestow upon a civilian or organization behind only the Gold and Silver Lifesaving Medals.
“This award honors some of the highest levels of interagency coordination and cooperation we’ve seen across myriad U.S. and international entities in our nation’s whole-of-government effort to eradicate transnational organized crime networks,” said DeQuattro. “These men and women have significantly contributed to the public safety and security of millions in our nation and throughout the Western Hemisphere through their dedication and skill.”
With each new interdiction and as the service tracks towards another historic year, the men and women of the Coast Guard realize that their counter drug operations begin and end with the men and women in the Middle District of Florida and Operation Panama Express South.