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27 Tons of Cocaine Seized

American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 27, 2004 – Two fishing vessels with roughly 27 tons of cocaine aboard were intercepted in the Eastern Pacific, the Department of Homeland Security announced today.

Work by a Florida-based multiagency task force investigation led to the two seizures, among the largest maritime seizures of cocaine in U.S. history, and the arrest of 18 individuals. U.S. Navy vessels were among assets used in the operation.

On Sept. 17, Navy frigate USS Curts, with a U.S. Coast Guard law-enforcement detachment on board, intercepted the fishing vessel Lina Maria, about 300 miles southwest of the Galapagos Islands. Aboard the vessel, the Coast Guard boarding team found 14.52 tons of cocaine. Ten crewmembers were arrested.

On Sept. 26, another Navy frigate, the USS Crommelin, with a U.S. Coast Guard law-enforcement detachment on board, intercepted the fishing vessel San Jose, sister vessel of the Lina Maria, about 1,000 miles south of Manzanillo, Mexico. The detachment found about 13 tons of cocaine. Eight crewmembers were arrested.

These seizures bring the total cocaine seized by the Coast Guard this year to a record 240,519 pounds, worth about $7.3 billion. The previous annual record of 138,393 pounds was surpassed May 29 with the seizure of 4,300 pounds of cocaine from a go-fast vessel in the Eastern Pacific.

The back-to-back seizures resulted from a collaborative effort under Operation Panama Express, a longstanding organized crime drug enforcement task force investigation based out of Tampa, Florida.

The Panama Express team included the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, the Coast Guard, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Joint Interagency Task Force-South, the Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigative Division, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the sheriff's offices from Florida's Pinellas and Sarasota counties.

"Vastly improved intelligence gathering and more coordinated operations with our enforcement and intelligence partners has meant our cutter and aircraft crews are increasingly finding themselves in the right place at the right time to detect and intercept any threat," said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thomas H. Collins at today's press conference. "The Coast Guard is committed to denying the seas to those who wish to harm our citizens, and this disruption of the illegal drug trade is part of our successful, layered homeland security strategy."

"Organizations with the capacity to move this quantity of contraband in the holds of ships pose a serious threat to our homeland," said Michael J. Garcia, the Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"Battling this threat requires an intelligence-based approach by law enforcement," he noted, adding that these seizures show what can happen when "quality intelligence" guides drug-interdiction efforts.

In the first seizure, ICE, FBI, and DEA agents on the Panama Express investigative team developed intelligence that the Lina Maria was transporting cocaine in the Pacific. Agents passed this data to JIATF-South, which dispatched aircraft from the U.S. Navy, ICE and the Coast Guard to intercept the cocaine-laden vessel. JIATF-South also dispatched Navy and Coast Guard vessels.

An ICE P-3 surveillance aircraft then spotted the Lina Maria traveling off the coast of Ecuador and passed the information on to JIATF-South and a nearby Navy aircraft. A Navy vessel, with a Coast Guard law-enforcement detachment on board, then intercepted the Lina Maria. The Coast Guard boarding team found the cocaine concealed in a sealed ballast tank and detained 10 individuals.

The second seizure occurred in much the same fashion. The intelligence was passed on to JIATF-South, which dispatched aircraft and vessels for interception. An ICE P-3 spotted the San Jose 1,500 miles southwest of Manta, Ecuador. ICE and Coast Guard aircraft monitored the San Jose until a U.S. Navy ship with a Coast Guard law-enforcement detachment on board intercepted the cocaine-laden vessel Sept. 23. The Coast Guard boarding team found the cocaine in a hold buried under fish and ice. Eight individuals were taken into custody.

(Based on a release from the Homeland Security Department.)

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Related Sites:
U.S. Coast Guard
U.S. Coast Guard Drug Interdiction Program

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