Thursday, December 29, 2011

U.S. Coast Guard unit intercepts over $10 billion tied to drug trade

  • The Coast Guard helicopter unit operates in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific
  • Crews on its 10 armed helicopters can shoot out the engines of suspect ships
  • The $10 billion figure includes the results of 209 interdictions since 1998

(CNN) -- A U.S. Coast Guard unit that uses armed helicopters to go after maritime drug runners announced on Thursday that, working with federal partners, it has intercepted more than $10 billion in illegal drugs and related assets since it was commissioned in 1998.

The milestone for the Coast Guard Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) includes intercepts in and around the Caribbean and eastern Pacific.

"There's been a lot of blood, sweat and tears that went into this," said Capt. Donna Cottrell, who took command of the squadron in June.

The Jacksonville, Florida-based squadron is the only fully operating unit of its kind in the Coast Guard. Its 10 helicopters are armed, allowing them to shoot out the engines of boats -- but not at their passengers -- if those on board fail to heed verbal requests and warning shots to stop, according to Cottrell.

The squadron works closely with a host of other agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Navy, whose planes may be used to spot suspect ships -- they typically don't fly under any nation's flag, have numerous packages and carry large fuel barrels -- from high above.

"This was really thinking outside the box," said Cottrell, noting the dual challenges of preventing drug shipments and not harming those aboard ships in international waters. Before, we could catch (suspected drug traffickers), but we couldn't make them stop."

The $10 billion milestone over the past 13 years, notably, marks a fraction of the total amount of illegal drugs that get into the United States each year. HITRON is one of many initiatives aimed at curbing the flow of illegal drugs, many of which comes into the country by sea.

On its website, the DEA estimates that more than 90,000 merchant and passengers ships, carrying 400 million tons of cargo on more than 9 million shipping containers, dock at U.S. ports each year. And that doesn't include the 157,000 smaller vessels that travel to smaller ports. Finding and intercepting illicit cargo in the midst of this sort of traffic is a daunting challenge.

Many of those ships go through the Caribbean and along the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean from South and Central America, where the drugs originated.

"It's a big problem," Cottrell said of the challenge in tracking seaborne drug shipments. "It's a lot of water to cover, (which is one reason) we are in high demand."

As of Thursday, her squadron's crews had interdicted 209 vessels carrying "illegal contraband" -- some by shooting out engines, and others after the crew members assented to requests to stop. Cottrell said that the Coast Guard crews haven't been fired on over the 13-year period, while 645 suspected drug traffickers have been detained.

The $10.065 billion figure announced Thursday includes more than $8.7 million in cash and the street value of numerous drugs, including more than 412,000 pounds of cocaine, 21,000 pounds of marijuana, 300 pounds of heroin and 135 pounds of hash oil.

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