The Coast Guard's newest cutter made a major cocaine bust before it even got to its home port


VIDEO: Here's what happens when the Coast Guard finds a drug-smuggling submarine

In July, yet-to-be-commissioned Coast Guard cutter Midgett passed through the Panama Canal and started a roughly 5,000-mile trip to Honolulu.

The Coast Guard accepted the Midgett in April, and it didn't leave the Mississippi shipyard where it was built until June 11. But the newest national-security cutter was ready as it transited the eastern Pacific, and with good reason — the ship helped intercept more than 2,100 pounds of cocaine before it even made it to its home port.

On July 25, a MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter from the U.S. Navy destroyer Michael Murphy spotted a low-profile go-fast boat — a kind of vessel often called a "narco sub."

Some 80% of the cocaine smuggled to North America comes through the eastern Pacific, often in narco subs — sometimes true submarines or semi-submersibles, but usually low-profile vessels, of which the service has seen a recent resurgence.

As the helicopter approached, a hatch on top of the go-fast boat opened, and, the Navy said, three passengers began tossing objects in the water. The destroyer's interceptor boat, guided by the helicopter, picked up the objects and pulled alongside, telling the suspects to remain in sight.

The Murphy remained beside the go-fast boat while the the Midgett hurried to the scene, a trip that took five to six hours, according to Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Brickey

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Midgett (WMSL 757) crew members seized more than 2,100 pounds of cocaine July 26, 2019, from a low-profile go-fast vessel interdicted in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean (U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area photo)

The Coast Guard has law-enforcement authority to conduct a boarding, granted under title 14 US Code § 89, Brickey said in an email. Unlike the Navy, the Coast Guard is exempt from Posse Comitatus

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Midgett (WMSL 757) seen with a low-profile go-fast vessel interdicted in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean July 26, 2019 (U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area)

The expansion of the drug war and with it the Coast Guard's authority to detain suspected smugglers has raised concerns about legal procedure and due process.

Coast Guard crews coordinate with countries in the region to resolve jurisdictional issues regarding suspected smuggling vessels and people aboard them, but the service has faced criticism for holding detainees in international waters for weeks or months — a former Coast Guard lawyer described the cutters holding detainees as "floating Guantanamos."

In a December 2017 interview, then-Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft defended the service, calling that description "an unfair stab at the Coast Guard."

"We will provide them food, provide them shelter, provide them sanitation facilities. This is really a challenge of logistics," Zukunft said. "We're spending, right now, about 30% of our at-sea patrol time doing logistics for detainees to facilitate their arrival in the United States for further prosecution, so it really is a logistics effort."

The Midgett arrived on the scene, and its crew examined the objects thrown overboard, which tested positive for cocaine. Aboard the go-fast boat, the Midgett's boarding team found more than 2,100 pounds of the drug. The cutter's crew also took the three suspected smugglers into custody

A boarding team member from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Midgett (WMSL 757) inspects contraband discovered within a suspected drug smuggling vessel interdicted in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, July 26, 2019 (U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area photo)

While the Coast Guard has accepted the Midgett, the ship won't be commissioned until August 24, and even then it will take another 18 months — during which it will get upgrades and installations easier done in port than in a shipyard, Brickey said — before it goes out on operations

The cabin of a low-profile go-fast vessel interdicted July 25, 2019 by U.S. authorities in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean shows the controls of the purpose-built smuggling vessel which is designed to ride low in the water to avoid detection by law enforcement authorities (U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area photo)

Despite being pre-commissioned, "this interdiction showcases how ready our crew is and how capable the national-security cutters are," said Capt. Alan McCabe, the Midgett's commanding officer, who highlighted the importance of partnering with the Navy

Bales of cocaine fill a cargo hold within a low-profile go-fast drug smuggling vessel interdicted by U.S. authorities in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean July, 25, 2019 (U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area photo)

"The command and crew went above and beyond the minimal 'ready for sea' requirements needed to sail the ship to Honolulu," Brickey said of the Midgett. "They also made sure they had the necessary qualifications, training, and inbriefs to execute this mission, knowing that part of their voyage would take them through the eastern Pacific ... a hotbed of smuggling activity"

A boarding team member from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Midgett (WMSL 757) holds a kilo of contraband seized from a low-profile go-fast vessel interdicted in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, July 26, 2019 (U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area photo)

Cocaine production in Colombia, the main producer of the drug, has spiked in recent years, and the Coast Guard has hauled in record-setting amounts of cocaine over the same period.

Fiscal year 2017, which ran from October 2016 to September 2017, has the record with 493,000 pounds seized, topping the previous mark of 443,000 pounds set in fiscal year 2016. (The 2016 total well exceeded the previous record of 367,700 pounds in 2008.)

During fiscal year 2018, the service intercepted just over 458,000 pounds of cocaine — the second-highest total ever. Through July 2019, the Coast Guard had intercepted 230,000 pounds of the drug.

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