Drug Trafficking: How a Cartel Speedboat With 5,000 Pounds of Cocaine Was Stopped

Boarding officers from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Stratton take suspected smugglers into custody in international waters in the drug transit zone of the eastern Pacific Ocean, February 23. The Stratton seized a total of 3,700 pounds of cocaine during a counter-smuggling patrol. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Barney

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had been investigating a Colombian drug cartel that sent cocaine around the world when agents learned that the cartel was planning a big shipment in a small boat known as a "go-fast." Then, a U.S. Navy plane flying above the Pacific Ocean about 590 miles off the coast of Mexico on July 8 spotted what looked like a go-fast below in the water. The Navy plane relayed news of the sighting to the Coast Guard command, which dispatched a cutter to intercept the suspicious boat.

"The cutter approached the go-fast and launched a helicopter and a patrol boat, which proceeded to intercept the go-fast," according to federal court papers. "The helicopter fired warning shots at the go-fast. When the Coast Guardsmen boarded the go-fast, they found five men and the deck covered almost completely with 107 large bundles wrapped in black plastic and brown tape, "such that any passenger…would have to climb over the bales to get from one side of the go-fast to the other," court papers state.

The boarding team field-tested samples from the bales and found a total of almost 5,000 pounds. The five men aboard the boat have been charged with violating maritime drug laws for trying to smuggle the drugs into the U.S., and they were expected to appear in Manhattan federal court on Monday afternoon. "From digging border tunnels to using go-fast boats, drug cartels will stop at nothing to get their illicit product into America," James Hunt, DEA special agent in charge of the New York office, said in a statement. "This seizure was a significant profit loss to the traffickers with a sobering effect to drug users in the U.S."

There's been a massive increase in the amount of coca grown in Columbia, and the number of boats smuggling the drugs north to the U.S. is rising, the Associated Press reported in May. "What we know here out at sea is that the business has been really good in the last couple of years," said Captain Nathan Moore, skipper of the 418-foot Coast Guard cutter Stratton, the most advanced ship in the Coast Guard fleet.

Over the past two years, the Coast Guard has increased its focus on known drug transit zones like the one in the Eastern Pacific where the go-fast was stopped on July 8. "Cartels, gangs and criminal groups have converged to form intricate transnational organized crime networks that fuel the nation's opiate epidemic, spread violence throughout Central and South America and have a presence in nearly every single major city in the U.S.," the Coast Guard said in a statement in March, in which it also announced four cutters had seized six tons of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific in January and February. "The same criminal networks move heroin, cocaine and other illegal drugs plaguing the nation."