Written by Chief Warrant Officer Allyson E.T. Conroy
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of a series from the Coast Guard Cutter Sherman as they chase illicit traffickers throughout the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Please tune in for the cutter’s next blog as the crew comes face to face with narcotraffickers in the zone.
“Now set special sea detail.”
There is a flurry of activity from bow to stern. Crewmembers aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Sherman prepare to leave the lush cove of Golfito, Costa Rica, the morning of Jan. 9, 2017. Lines are manned. Lookouts are posted. A course is set. There is an excitement in the air that electrifies the crew. Everyone is ready to get back to work beginning their second month at sea.
“The first part of our patrol was really exciting,” said Sherman’s operations officer, Lt. Paul Ledbetter. “Three interdictions in one day! It was amazing; I’d never seen anything like it. We were finishing up one case and almost literally running into another one. A panga crossed right in front of us in broad daylight.”
One of the pangas was spotted by one of the cutter’s crewmembers according to Lt. j.g. Jamie Waterman.
“It was unbelievable. We were still wrapping things up with a case we were working,” Waterman said. “We are all responsible for reporting to the bridge anything we see or hear. And sure enough, he saw a panga come into view. He called it out right away and just like that we were working our next case.”
The entire crew tells the same story with sheer excitement. In fact, nearly every crewmember on the cutter takes pride in telling the story. It is what fuels them as they leave the pier in Golfito 30 days into their multi-month deployment to the Eastern Pacific Ocean, a deployment that took them away from family through the holiday season. But the crew is upbeat and ready for the challenge of patrolling the vast Eastern Pacific Ocean for whatever may cross their path.
Lines are set free from their moorings; the cutter piloted toward open water. Another adventure on the horizon; one ripe with possibility. Cutter Sherman steams south toward the equator.
Sherman’s current patrol is part of a partnership that falls under Joint Interagency Task Force South, a component of U.S. Southern Command. The JIATF South team oversees the detection and monitoring of illicit traffickers and assists U.S. and multi-national law enforcement agencies with the interdiction of these illicit traffickers.
In the past several years, there has been a significant rise in illicit drug interdictions in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific Ocean. Most recently, the Coast Guard set a record for illicit drug removal by stopping more than 443,000 pounds of cocaine in Fiscal Year 2016, which ran from Oct. 1, 2015, to Sept. 30, 2016.
“Sherman is getting ready to turn 50 in August (2018),” said Cmdr. Jerome Dubay, Sherman’s executive officer. “This is a 50-year old ship in theater doing the job, executing the mission. Sure the cutter still has the look and feel of the era it was built, but the crew keeps the equipment working; we are very successful in our ability to conduct the job we are sent here to do.”
Sherman is indeed successful in executing today’s mission in the drug zone. In the first part of the patrol, the crew seized more than 6,613 pounds of cocaine with a wholesale price of $99 million.
“I’ve definitely seen an increase of cases,” Ledbetter said. “We had four cases in two days. But I think it really demonstrates that there is certainly a lot of activity in the area.”
Ledbetter has been the operations officer aboard Sherman for almost seven months. In that short time, the crew of Sherman has seized over 9,541 pounds of cocaine worth more than $143 million and apprehended 24 suspected smugglers.
Sherman is on patrol in the drug transit zone, or “the zone,” as it’s sometimes referred to by Coast Guard personnel. “The zone” is a roughly 6 million square mile area about the size of the continental United States that stretches from the Caribbean Sea to the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Coast Guard men and women regularly patrol this massive body of water to disrupt drug and human trafficking attempts by transnational organized crime networks.
The mood throughout the ship changes as they enter their operating area to one of anticipation as the crewmembers ready their gear and mentally prepare for the possibility of making another interdiction. They are laser focused on keeping more drugs from reaching the U.S. streets and ravaging Central America.
According to a recent United Nations report, El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world where competing gangs are vying for territory in the critical transshipment point for South American cocaine and heroin to the U.S. Meanwhile, back home in the U.S., about 50,000 people died in 2015 from drug overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The crew of Sherman knows what’s at stake in this mission. For them, lives hang in the balance of the next interdiction, the next several thousand pounds of cocaine that won’t poison U.S. towns or cities, prey on those suffering from addiction or fund violence in the Western Hemisphere.