Washington — In two separate actions, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard personnel recently stopped suspected drug-smuggling vessels in Caribbean waters and in the Pacific Ocean, seizing drug shipments worth a combined $19 million, according to the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom).
As one of nine unified combatant commands in the U.S. Defense Department, Southcom provides security cooperation with Central American, South American and Caribbean nations. It works with partner nations to fight the illegal activities associated with drug trafficking, which threatens stability in the Western Hemisphere.
On June 10, the USS Elrod and its U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment interdicted a suspected smuggling vessel in the Caribbean, recovering more than 1,000 pounds of cocaine, worth about $13 million. The action was part of Operation Martillo (Hammer), a combined U.S., European and Western Hemisphere effort targeting illicit trafficking routes in coastal waters along the Central American isthmus.
U.S. military participation in Operation Martillo is being led by Joint Interagency Task Force South, a component of Southcom.
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard team also detained four suspected drug smugglers during the interdiction.
Southcom officials told reporters that a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion patrol aircraft spotted the “go-fast” vessel, and the Elrod moved to intercept. The Norfolk, Virginia–based frigate launched a helicopter and a rigid-hull inflatable boat with a Coast Guard boarding team to intercept the suspect vessel.
“The level of dedication and seamless teamwork between the crew of Elrod, the embarked U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement team and our helicopter detachment are all directly responsible for making this interdiction a success,” said Commander Jack Killman, Elrod’s commanding officer.
More than 80 percent of cocaine moving out of South America into Central America and moving toward North American markets is transported via noncommercial maritime conveyances — primarily “go-fast” boats — along littoral routes, Southcom said.
On June 19, also in support of Operation Martillo, guided-missile frigate USS Nicholas and its U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment employed airborne tactics to stop a suspect vessel in the Pacific Ocean. The action recovered 275 pounds of marijuana and 500 pounds of cocaine, with a combined wholesale value of more than $6 million.
As Southcom officials described it, the episode had its share of tension and drama.
When a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion initially detected the speedboat, drug traffickers began to throw the contraband overboard. At that point, the P-3 turned over tracking of the speedboat to the USS Nicholas, while U.S. Coast Guard District Eleven assumed control of the interdiction effort.
An embarked helicopter was launched with a gunner on board to intercept the speedboat and mark the debris field with a smoke float. To halt the suspect vessel, the gunner fired warning shots across the bow and aft of the speedboat. The vessel continued on its course, so the gunner fired disabling rounds, bringing the speedboat to a stop.
USS Nicholas then launched a rigid-hull inflatable boat with Coast Guardsmen and seized the speedboat.
“This interdiction is a clear example of our commitment to produce a safer and more secure region where criminal organizations no longer wield the power to destabilize governments,” said Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and the U.S. 4th Fleet. “These organizations threaten national and regional security and public safety, so we need to prevent the entry and spread of illicit drugs, violence and transnational threats to countries throughout the region and the United States.”
“By teaming up with our partner nations and allied forces to scrutinize the littorals, we will deny transnational organized crime networks these routes,” Harris said.