MIAMI — Wearing protective gloves and masks, members of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Legare carried 127 bales of cocaine — with a street value of about $350 million — off the ship and into a waiting trailer Tuesday.
The 80-pound bricks, which were seized in two separate cases in southwestern Caribbean waters, were handed over to federal agents and will be destroyed. The drugs are worth about $110 million wholesale.
“We can safely assume that these drugs probably would have ended up here,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Junior Grade Meaghan Gies, who handles the drug program for District 7.
Gies and other Coast Guard members stood at the Miami Beach base Tuesday morning waiting for the Virginia-based ship’s arrival.
“Between the two, this is probably the biggest offload we have had in a year,” she said as she spotted the vessel making its way to the port.
The drug busts were part of Operation Martillo, an international effort launched in January 2012 to keep drugs from landing on American and international soil. Countries including the United States, Chile, Columbia and Costa Rica are working together to protect the southwestern Caribbean Sea and stop the drugs before they can be distributed. The countries have bilateral agreements that allow them to board ships in order to stop smuggling operations.
“This seizure is just another successful example of our cooperation with our partners to maintain a forward presence in the Caribbean Sea,” said Marilyn Fajardo, deputy public affairs officer for the U.S. Coast Guard just before the drugs were taken off the ship. “This is one of our core missions.”
Gies said Operation Martillo, which means “hammer” in Spanish, focuses on “bulk contraband.”
“About 80 percent of the cocaine comes in through water,” Gies said. “The idea is to stop it before it is broken up into smaller parts and distributed.”
The first bust happened March 15 about 100 miles south of Jamaica. Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Glace Bay suspected a smuggling operation out of a fishing vessel. When officials boarded the ship, the vessel caught fire and the six people on board were rescued. In transport to Jamaica to return the crew aboard the fishing vessel, Glace Bay found 97 bales, or about 2,400 kilos, of cocaine floating in the water. The drugs have a wholesale value of about $80 million. No one could be tied to the drugs in this case.
“We were able to recover the drugs, but cannot prosecute the case,” said Fajardo.
In the second case, the Legare spotted a go-fast boat in the waters between Colombia and Honduras on March 19.
The 270-foot ship’s Commanding Officer, Kevin King, stood on the ship’s loading dock Tuesday — just before taking the drugs off-board — explaining how, with the use of a specially equipped helicopter, his 100-member crew recovered 30 bales of cocaine.
“We tried getting the boat to stop with voice commands,” he said. But when that didn’t work they used their on-board helicopter.
Warning shots were fired and then shots to disable the engine followed.
“You always have to take all kinds of precautions with these types of operations,” he said.
After disabling the engine, Coast Guard officers spotted the members throwing the bales of cocaine into the water. Crews recovered 900 kilos, or 30 bales, which have a wholesale value of about $30 million from the water. Five Colombian nationals were on board and taken back to Colombia for prosecution.
Gies said the operation has been successful in seizing drugs.
In January, a $37 million haul was brought into Miami Beach after the U.S. Coast Guard worked with a British fleet to stop a go fast boat in the Caribbean Sea.
According to Fajardo, there have been 14,000 kilos of cocaine seized since the beginning of the fiscal year, Oct. 1, 2013. That’s about $92 million in wholesale value. The previous year, 53,200 kilos of cocaine were seized with about $1.8 billion.
“We hope with these drug offloads that we are sending a clear message that the Coast Guard means business,” Fajardo said. “Our crews are out there every day risking their lives to protect our U.S. borders.”