Drug cartels are out close to $160 million in cocaine thanks to the work of the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk in the eastern Pacific Ocean over the past two months.
The Mohawk and its crew of around 100 returned to their home port of Coast Guard Sector Key West at Trumbo Road on Sunday after conducting counter-drug patrols off Central America as part of the Key West-based Joint Interagency Task Force South.
"We stopped a significant number of boats and sent a significant number of people to port and detained them for prosecution," said Capt. Craig J. Wieschhorster, commanding officer of the Mohawk. "We took more than 5,000 kilograms of cocaine off the water."
Joint Interagency Task Force South works with other U.S. military branches and federal agencies, as well as navies from other countries like the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands. It also includes navies from all Central American and some South American countries, said U.S. Marine Corps Col. Rick Neitzy, director operations for the task force.
"The ship was on a counter-narcotics mission for the past few months under the task force's control as they hunted for drug smugglers who move through the eastern Pacific," Neitzy said.
Along with the kilos of coke, the Mohawk's crew detained almost 20 people suspected of smuggling the drugs, mostly in hollowed-out speedboats, or go-fast boats. At least three of these suspected smugglers are in federal custody in Key West facing charges of conspiracy to possess and sell more than five kilograms of cocaine.
"Over-the-side" patrol boat crews from the Mohawk and an HH-65 helicopter from the Coast Guard's Tactical Helicopter Squadron, also based in Florida, stopped the smugglers' go-fast boat on Sept. 13. On board, Coast Guardsmen found six packages of cocaine. The helicopter crew spotted another 19 packages floating in the water. In all, the Mohawk confiscated around 1,550 kilos, or 3,000 pounds, of cocaine.
"We knocked it out of the park," Wieschhorster said. "I'm very proud of all of our accomplishments out there."
The Mohawk conducts many different missions closer to its home port and abroad. Assignments like the one from which the 270-foot vessel just returned are difficult on the crew's families.
"Dinners can be a little long," said Nicole Baladad, wife of Lt. Nathaniel Baladad. "Weekends and dinners can be hard."
Loved ones back at home have a way of coming together during long deployments, but like spouses, children and significant others of members of all military branches, time and distance are felt.
"We're a Mohawk family when they're gone," said Patricia Wieschhorster, Capt. Wieschhorster's wife. "We try to stick together and support one another. And occasionaly we'll go out and do some fun stuff. But it definitely is a challenge. Everyone's with their families, but we're not. It works though."