MIAMI -- The U.S. Coast Guard unloaded 2,300 pounds of cocaine seized this week in the central Caribbean, displaying the bales of drugs valued at $35 million during a press conference in Miami Beach, Fla., on Saturday.
Four people were arrested in the operation, in which a Coast Guard helicopter fired shots to disable the engine of a drug-smuggling fast boat. The four defendants are now in the custody of federal authorities in Tampa, Fla.
Lt. Comm. Gabe Somma, a Coast Guard spokesman, said the seizure was part of Operation Unified Resolve, which started in October of last year and focuses attention on drug smuggling in the Caribbean, especially around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"That's where we've been seeing an increase in trafficking and in drug-related homicides," Somma said.
The operation started shortly before midnight July 14, when the Coast Guard said it spotted a go-fast boat speeding away from land and carrying what appeared to be bales of narcotics, said Lt. Paul Stetler, commanding officer of a Coast Guard cutter involved in the seizure.
Two Coast Guard cutters responded, one of which was equipped with an armed helicopter, which flew over the smuggling boat.
"Once they announced their presence, the go-fast began to flee," Stetler said. The people on the boat also started throwing the drug packages off the side of the boat into the ocean, officials said.
"The helicopter then used disabling fire to shoot out the engines of the go-fast," Stetler said.
Coast Guard helicopters typically use a 50-caliber rifle to disable the engines of fleeing boats, said Lt. Mario Gil of the Coast Guard's Seventh district in Miami.
"A lot of the time it doesn't take that much -- they'll just stop because we're there," Gil said. "But if they don't, this is a capability that we have, and we use it frequently."
After the go-fast boat was disabled, Stetler's ship, the Coast Guard cutter Robert Yered, spent 10 hours scouring the water for the discarded drugs. They eventually discovered 42 bales of cocaine, Stetler said.
According to Gil, that amount is the average load that can typically be transported by small go-fast boats.
Operation Unified Resolve, a multi-agency drug interdiction strategy launched by the Department of Homeland Security last October, has led to the seizure of some 40,000 pounds of cocaine -- a street valued of around $600 million, Gil said.
Unified Resolve was largely a reaction to the results of Operation Martillo, an earlier Homeland Security-coordinated endeavor that targeted smugglers in the southwestern Caribbean near the Central American coast.
"We believe this operation has pushed smugglers to take a more central route through the Caribbean," Gil said.
Somma, the Coast Guard spokesman, said that "Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are a lot closer to the United States," and traffickers "figure that if they can get there, they'll have an easier time getting into the U.S."