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Pence praises Coast Guard drug seizure efforts and criticizes immigration system during San Diego visit

Vice President Mike Pence stands alongside U.S. Coast Guard Capt. James C. Estramonte, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Munro, and Munro crewmembers while aboard the cutter in San Diego July 11, 2019.

MATTHEW S. MASASCHI/U.S. COAST GUARD

By CHARLES T. CLARK AND KRISTINA DAVIS | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: July 12, 2019

ABOARD THE CUTTER MUNRO (Tribune News Service) — Vice President Mike Pence praised drug seizure efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard and criticized the U.S. immigration system as broken and overwhelmed during one of his multiple stops in San Diego Thursday.

In a speech aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Munro ported at Naval Air Station North Island, he told members of the Coast Guard that their work was pivotal to saving American lives and promised that President Donald Trump’s administration will continue to fight to expand their resources.

“Our Coast Guard deserves better, that’s why we are fully committed to funding our Coast Guard and to replacing old ships with new ones just like the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Munro,” Pence said, adding that the president’s recent budget committed $12 billion to support the Coast Guard. “Get ready, more help is on the way.”

The stop at the cutter Munro was one of multiple stops the vice president made in San Diego on Thursday during day two of what is a three-day swing through California and Texas.

Pence started his day in San Diego on Thursday by visiting the Navy SEAL training facility in Coronado, then headed to the cutter around noon. Later, the vice president paid a visit to Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein at Chabad of Poway, the site of an anti-Semitic shooting on April 27. Pence appeared at a Trump re-election fundraiser in Rancho Santa Fe in the evening.

The only public event was aboard the cutter, where the vice president took time to focus on the Coast Guard’s expanded efforts in the eastern Pacific Ocean near Central and South America and highlighted a recent massive seizure by the cutter Munro as evidence of the tremendous impact the agency has in stopping illicit drugs from flowing into the U.S.

The cutter, which is homeported in Alameda, in Northern California, was in San Diego Thursday to offload more than 39,000 pounds – or 18 tons – of cocaine, along with 933 pounds of marijuana, that had been seized on the high seas in the eastern Pacific from May to mid-July.

The drugs were seized from 14 vessels in separate interdictions by a few different Coast Guard vessels operating in the area, and 55 suspected smugglers were detained related to the drug trafficking. Most of those individuals are being brought to the U.S. for prosecution in Tampa.

The total load is worth an estimated $569 million.

“When the red racing stripes of coast guard vessel break the horizon, those in distress know that help is on the way, and our enemies know their time has come,” Pence said. “Thanks for proving that on the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Munro on your first mission.”

James Spero, special agent in charge of U.S. Homeland Security investigations in Tampa, said Thursday that 85 percent of the cocaine is tied to ongoing cases being investigated out of Florida by a joint organized crime and drug task force.

The task force’s goal, under the initiative dubbed Operation Panama Express, is to start with the smugglers in the vessels and work up the chain of command – from the logistics operators all the way to the suppliers.

“Like any investigation, we don’t stop until we get to the top of the organization,” Spero said during a call with reporters.

The Coast Guard has put increased resources in the eastern Pacific, which has become the favored route for cocaine that is sourced in South and Central America.

The loads are often transported to Central America as a waypoint to then be smuggled in panga boats, go-fast vessels or homemade submarines to the western coast of Mexico. From there the drugs are smuggled over land to the southern U.S. border, often crossing at ports of entry.

Cocaine used to be heavily trafficked through the Caribbean, but increased law enforcement attention and the growing power of Mexican drug cartels have contributed to the shift to the Pacific.

The vessels are often considered stateless, meaning they aren’t flying a particular flag when they are in international waters. Under maritime law that gives law enforcement the ability to search the vessels, Spero said.

While drug trafficking organizations make every effort to remain undetected, Spero said emerging technology has increased the ability to detect such vessels.

“That’s a huge ocean out there and it’s still difficult,” Spero said. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Although talk of the Coast Guard dominated Pence’s address to service members Thursday, the vice president also touched on border issues during his first offical trip to San Diego County since taking office.

“Every day that our southern border remains unsecured gives criminal syndicates and drug traffickers more opportunity to peddle their poison and spread the violence that’s cut short too many American lives,” Pence told Coast Guard members, adding that their efforts to stop drug traffickers also attacks the border crisis at the root.

Pence said drug cartels and money made from drug trafficking are funding gang violence, human trafficking and extortion in the home countries of many migrants.

In a discussion with reporters after his speech, Pence also answered questions about deaths crossing the border and conditions at detention facilities.

House Democrats have long been critical of the conditions of the migrant detention facilities, but earlier this month the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General also released a report that found overcrowding and squalid conditions were common.

At some facilities in Texas, migrants were only given wet wipes to clean themselves. Inspectors also found no laundry facilities and reported that children in custody had few spare clothes and some were not being given hot meals.

Pence defended detention conditions while being questioned by reporters and criticized Democratic members of Congress who have compared the facilities to concentration camps.

He said that Customs and Border Protection agents are providing migrants aid, and added that the media and America will see that during a tour of an immigrant detention facility in McAllen, Texas, he has scheduled for Friday alongside Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“What people are going to see is not the situation many Democrats have described but actually a situation where our CBP agents are providing humanitarian care, health care, shelter, food, sustenance in a way that would make the American people proud,” he said.

On Wednesday Pence visited military facilities in Lemoore and Lompoc and attended a fundraiser for Trump’s re-election campaign as well.

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©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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Vice President Mike Pence signs the engine housing from a go-fast boat interdicted by U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Munro crew members while visiting San Diego on July 11, 2019.
MATTHEW S. MASASCHI/U.S. COAST GUARD

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