- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

U.S. NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — A Volkswagen-size pile of cocaine is packed tightly into a chamber beneath the main deck of the ship floating offshore. If you didn’t ask, you’d never know it was there.

But that’s how the U.S. Coast Guard operates: modestly.

The drugs are below deck on the Gallatin, a 378-foot Coast Guard cutter whose crew seized more than 29,000 pounds of cocaine from smugglers in the Caribbean during a two-month mission this fall.

“This is what we do; this is every day,” said Capt. Mike Parks, the Gallatin’s commanding officer. “It barely makes the news because we do it all the time. We interdict millions of dollars worth of drugs every day.”

Capt. Parks spoke aboard the Gallatin last month during a two-day stop at Guantanamo Bay, where the boat refueled and one of its helicopters had maintenance performed.

The cocaine on board included more than 13,000 pounds seized during three arrests of smugglers off Columbia’s northern coast from Oct. 2 to 8. A video from one arrest shows a Coast Guard machine-gunner pumping bullets into the water around a smuggler’s speedboat as it bounded along over choppy Caribbean waves.

The 40-foot speedboat, called a “go-fast” by the Coast Guard, eventually spun to a stop as Coast Guardsmen quickly approached it in a combat-ready speedboat of their own.

The guardsmen arrested four Colombians, while the MH-68 Sting Ray interdiction helicopter hovered overhead. Several large plastic-wrapped bails of cocaine were pulled from the go-fast. Later, the helicopter fired into the boat’s engine, causing it to explode and sink.

“In the month of October, we had three separate go-fast drug seizures of over six tons of cocaine, valued at almost $400 million,” said Capt. Parks, adding that 13 suspected smugglers — a mix of Colombians, Mexicans and Venezuelans — were arrested during the seizures.

The smugglers were detained briefly aboard the Gallatin before being handed over to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Videos of the arrests and a small sample of the drugs also were handed over as evidence. Capt. Parks said the rest of the drugs are later burned by the DEA, usually at sites in Key West, Fla. or Miami.

The DEA and the Coast Guard fall under the Department of Homeland Security, which has emerged in recent years as the lead executor of the U.S. war on drugs being waged in coastal waters from Maine to South America to California. During fiscal 2004, the Coast Guard broke its own records for annual cocaine seizures in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean.

In all, more than 240,000 pounds of cocaine worth more than $20 billion were collected in that area during the year that ended Oct. 1. The Gallatin since has been involved in seven major seizures valued at about $930 million from smugglers operating off the coast of Colombia.

Capt. Parks stressed that the drug seizures are dependent upon international cooperation and interplay with U.S. agencies including the FBI, customs officials and the DEA. During the Gallatin’s most recent missions, the boat operated with two U.S. Navy frigates, three other Coast Guard cutters and four ships from the navies of Britain, the Netherlands and France.

The arrests often involve high-speed chases of the go-fasts, which Capt. Parks described as speedboats stripped down and customized to carry the maximum amount of fuel and drugs. The boats operate between Colombia and drop-off points in Haiti, Jamaica or Honduras, from where drugs are loaded onto ships and smuggled into U.S. ports.

Although the Gallatin has seized massive amounts of cocaine in the area, there is no way of knowing how much more gets through.

“It’s a large ocean; we’re just playing in a small part of it,” said Lt. Alain Balmaceda, the boat’s operations officer. “It’s hard to say how much else is getting through.”

A kilogram of cocaine, about 2.2 pounds, can fetch $200,000 on the U.S. street, and government figures show that demand is steady, with about 5 percent of U.S. adults using the drug.

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