- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seized more than 42,800 pounds of cocaine worth more than $300 million aboard a Panamanian motor vessel off the coast of Panama, the largest maritime drug seizure in U.S. history.

“This record-breaking seizure was the result of good actionable intelligence and the closest collaboration amongst our interagency partners through Operation Panama Express,” Adm. Thad W. Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, said yesterday in announcing the enforcement effort.

“Beyond that, our hardworking crews overcame significant challenges in maintaining a 40-year-old deep-water cutter to prosecute this mission far from U.S. shores, ultimately preventing nearly 20 tons of cocaine from reaching streets all across America in a single stroke,” Adm. Allen said.

The seizure, carried out Sunday, was part of an ongoing multiagency operation known as Panama Express. The Panamanian-flagged motor vessel, known as the Gatun, was stopped off the coast of Panama by the San Diego-based Coast Guard cutter Hamilton and the Alameda, Calif.-based Coast Guard cutter Sherman.

DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said a Coast Guard C-130 maritime patrol aircraft spotted the Gatun about 20 miles southwest of Isla de Coiba, Panama, on Saturday. The Coast Guard obtained flag-state consent to board the vessel through a maritime agreement between the United States and Panama.

Mr. Payne said a Coast Guard boarding team conducted a search and discovered the cocaine hidden in two containers aboard the ship. The 14 Panamanian and Mexican crew members of the Gatun were arrested and transferred to the United States and Panama for prosecution.

“This record-breaking seizure denied the Mexican drug lords $300 million in drug revenue,” DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy said. “This lost drug revenue, combined with last week’s unrelated record-breaking $205 million cash seizure by the government of Mexico working in partnership with DEA, dealt Mexican traffickers a one-two punch: They’re down more than half a billion dollars in blood money in just 48 hours.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said U.S. “engagement and increasing cooperation with our hemispheric neighbors” was crucial in efforts to stem the northern flow of narcotics from the region.

“A half-a-billion dollars taken from the drug lords is not a bad week’s work for our law-enforcement agencies and their partners in Panama and Mexico,” she said. “These spectacular results are further evidence of why we must remain actively engaged in the hemisphere.”

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called the seizure “a prime example of interagency teamwork among the DEA, the Coast Guard, and other Homeland Security and Department of Justice components.” He credited the combined efforts of U.S. Coast Guard and federal authorities, working with their international partners, for the seizure.

Previously, Mr. Payne said, the largest cocaine seizures by the Coast Guard were 30,109 pounds from the stateless-vessel Lina Maria, on Sept. 17, 2004; 26,397 pounds from the Cambodian-flagged vessel Svesda Maru on May 1, 2001; and 26,369 pounds from the Belize-flagged vessel San Jose on Sept. 23, 2004.

U.S. authorities seized 468,000 pounds of cocaine in 2005 but report no shortage in domestic drug supplies. In a report this month, the State Department said the movement of drugs from South America to the United States by way of Mexico has not abated or shifted to new routes or methods.

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