Coast Guard seizes record amount of cocaine
SAN DIEGO (AP) – The discovery of 13 tons of cocaine on a Belize fishing boat – the largest such seizure in U.S. maritime history – has authorities on a record-breaking track for the year, officials said Monday.
The Coast Guard, since Oct. 1, has seized 110,000 pounds of cocaine at sea, 80 percent of it found in the eastern Pacific. That rivals the 120,000 pounds found in all of fiscal 2000, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Ray Riutta said.
”We are on track to break last year’s record if we continue at this pace,” he said.
In the latest find, authorities on May 3 discovered 13 tons of cocaine on a Belize-flagged vessel about 1,500 miles south of San Diego, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
The 152-foot ship caught the attention of a U.S. Navy ship on April 28 because it lacked operable fishing equipment, had few fish, and was outside normal fishing grounds, Coast Guard Capt. Bob Reininger said.
A crew from the Coast Guard cutter Active was called in to search the vessel. After searching it for five days, the crew eventually found the drug load in a secret compartment underneath the fishing hold.
The boat was towed Sunday to San Diego.
The 10-man crew of the Svesda Maru – eight Ukrainians and two Russians – were arrested. They appeared before a federal judge Monday on smuggling charges but did not enter pleas. They could face up to life imprisonment if convicted.
Investigators believe the crew intended to deliver the 26,397 pounds of cocaine from Colombia to Central America or Mexico, where it would be smuggled by land into the United States.
U.S. authorities believe the smugglers on the Svesda Maru must have had permission from the Arellano-Felix drug trafficking organization, based in Tijuana, to be transporting cocaine so close to its territory, said Errol Chavez, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s San Diego office.
”This is some indication that there is direct involvement or some kind of association between Russian organized crime and members of the Arellano-Felix organization.”
Cocaine seizures in the eastern Pacific Ocean have become increasingly common in recent years as smugglers seek to evade law enforcement in the Caribbean by taking advantage of the vastness of the Pacific.
During a six-day period earlier this year, the Coast Guard seized 28,845 pounds of cocaine, about what it captured in all of 1996.
In February, the Coast Guard seized an 8.8-ton shipment of cocaine found on a rusty fishing boat off the coast of Mexico. The Belize-flagged Forever My Friend, had a crew of 10 aboard that included nine men from Central America and one from Ukraine. The cocaine in that seizure also was hidden in a secret compartment, buried under ice and fresh fish.
The May 3 seizure, however, is unusual both for its size and the fact that the crew consisted entirely of Russians and Ukrainians.
The previous record for a cocaine seizure at sea was 24,000 pounds from a ship called the Nataly I in 1995.
On the Net:
Coast Guard announcement: http://www.uscg.mil/news/Drugs2001/index.htm
Drug Enforcement Administration: http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/
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