Badassery on Display: Coasties Seize Nearly 20 Tons of Cocaine

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Munro (WMSL 755) crew members transfer bales of cocaine from the ship’s 35-foot Long Range Interceptor small boat to the cutter June 6, 2019. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Munro (WMSL 755) crew members transfer bales of cocaine from the ship’s 35-foot Long Range Interceptor small boat to the cutter June 6, 2019. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

A Coastie riding on a rigid-hull inflatable pulls alongside a self-propelled semi-submersible, a "narco sub," in the treacherous open Pacific under threatening skies.

Adrenaline obviously courses through everyone involved, including the tactical law enforcement officer who leaps onto the wave-drenched hull and grabs the sub's hatch, pounding on it with brute force.

Remarkably, someone from below responds, hands reaching out of the black hole.

"Get down!!! Stay down!!!" the Coastie and his colleagues scream at the unseen occupants, hiding in their haze-gray, elliptical boat.

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Video of the boarding has been widely viewed -- digital documentation of the dangers Coast Guard tactical law enforcement officers face in their jobs and insight into the operations behind a photo op held Thursday on the deck of the national security cutter Munro, off Naval Air Station North Island, California.

    Vice President Mike Pence was on hand to congratulate the crew and watch Munro disgorge a mother lode of drug contraband, the latest haul of an ongoing needle-in-a-haystack mission to intercept drug runners in the eastern Pacific.

    The cache, 39,000 pounds of pure cocaine and 993 pounds of marijuana with a street value of $569 million, came from 14 interdictions since May by three Coast Guard cutters, including the Munro, which garnered eight of the 14 seizures on its first-ever counter-narcotics patrol.

    The capture brought the Coast Guard's drug seizures for the year to more than 315,000 pounds.

    "I'm told that [eastern Pacific] is the route for 80% of cocaine that makes it to America … enslaving Americans into addiction, destroying families and communities and claiming lives," Pence said.

    But it was the video that has captured the public's attention, showing a side of the Coast Guard -- often considered the white hats who save boaters in distress and guard the nation's fishing stocks and coastal environment -- few see.

    "Badass" seems to be the universal description for the unnamed Coastie.

    According to Coast Guard officials, the service, working with the U.S. Navy, Customs and Border Patrol, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and partner nations, patrols a broad swath of the eastern Pacific between the northwest coast of South America and Mexico during counter-drug operations. And they do it with minimal resources, like covering an area roughly the size of the United States with "the equivalent of five patrol cars," a senior Coast Guard law enforcement official said.

    "It's six million square miles, a vast transit space used by illicit traffickers to smuggle narcotics from South America to north central in North America," senior Coast Guard law enforcement officials told reporters in a briefing Wednesday before the offload.

    The amount of cocaine seized by the U.S. Coast Guard has steadily increased since 2014, reaching a high of 223 metric tons in 2017.

    The cutter Munro -- one of the service's newest long-range vessels, commissioned in 2017 -- is equipped with an armed MH-65 Dolphin helicopter capable of firing warning or disabling shots at smugglers' boats, as well as Short Range Prosecutor and/or Long Range Interceptor rigid hull inflatable boats boarding teams use to chase and apprehend drug runners.

    On Thursday, crew members were on the flight deck to hear words from Pence and Pacific Area Commander Vice Adm. Linda Fagan.

    "National security cutters are truly national-level assets. They are game changers to the United States government's interdiction capability. ... Today's offload is just a fraction of the narcotics we will seize in the coming months," Fagan said.

    Since 2015, the Coast Guard has set records for cocaine seizures, removing more than 777 metric tons from the supply chain. But the mission has been anything but easy. While the service saw record seizures in the mid-2000s after adopting new interdiction tactics, to include arming its helicopters and teaming with the Defense Department and intelligence communities to broaden the view of the drug transportation sea lanes, by 2010, it saw captures and apprehensions drop by half -- in part because drug smugglers began using different tactics, but also because the Coast Guard's aging ships weren't up to the task and it faced a budget crisis.

    From roughly 2007 to 2014, the service shifted funding from operations to support recapitalization programs and modernization. The situation was so bad that Coast Guard leaders lowered performance goals, such as drug interdiction goals, knowing members didn't have the finances or equipment to meet previous standards.

    "We decommissioned assets, and assets were aging faster than we could bring new ones online," a Coast Guard officer explained. "Also, the [Navy] fast frigates were decommissioning around the same time. They had been a mainstay for us down there."

    Starting in 2014, with new ships such as the national security cutter and fast response cutter coming online, the Coast Guard stepped up its counter-narcotics patrols.

    "Cocaine use is on a rise in the United States. ... [It's] the cash cow for these drug cartels. They use cocaine revenues to support their organizations, their enterprises, allowing them to maintain and expand on their illicit activities," the official said.

    Despite the successes, however, the U.S. still captures only about 11.3% of all drugs smuggled into the country. To evade law enforcement, smugglers spend weeks at sea, sometimes transiting as far out as the western side of the Galapagos Islands. They move in "go-fast" vessels with multiple high horsepower engines, fishing vessels, pleasure craft and sailboats, low-profile vessels and semi-submersibles -- narco-subs -- built explicitly for smuggling.

    '[The cartels] are very enterprising," the official said.

    Illicit drug use remains a significant problem in the U.S., with more than 70,000 Americans dying of overdoses in 2017. While more than half of those were related to opioids, overdose deaths involving cocaine increased by 52.4% from 2015 to 2016 alone.

    According to the Coast Guard, the amount of cocaine the service seized in 2018 was enough to make 4.18 billion hits of cocaine -- enough for everyone in America to have a daily dose for 13 straight days.

    "Although we're making a dent in what the drug cartels are bringing to our country, we can't stop because they're bringing drugs and violence to our hemisphere and to our neighborhoods and our streets," the official said.

    Pence told the Munro's crew that they had honored the ship's namesake, the only Coast Guardsmen to earn the Medal of Honor. Douglas Munro was posthumously awarded the honor for shielding Marines with his landing craft in heavy fighting at Matanikau during the Battle of Guadalcanal on Sept. 27, 1942.

    "Your courageous service is saving American lives," Pence said.

    -- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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