MIAMI -- The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Seneca, a medium-endurance cutter homeported in Boston, interdicted a drug smuggling, self-propelled semi-submersible vessel in the western Caribbean Sea, July 13.
Used regularly to transport illegal narcotics in the Eastern Pacific, this interdiction is the first interdiction of an SPSS in the Caribbean and the first underwater drug removal of an SPSS.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection maritime patrol airplane spotted the SPSS while on patrol and alerted the Seneca crew of the location.
With the assistance of the Customs and Border Patrol airplane, a Seneca-based Coast Guard helicopter crew and pursuit boat crew interdicted the SPSS and detained its crew. The SPSS sank during the interdiction, but not before a quantity of cocaine was recovered.
The Seneca crew members commenced searching for the sunken SPSS, July 13. Several Coast Guard Cutters, the Honduran navy and FBI dive teams conducted multiple search patterns. The SPSS was located by the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Oak, July 26, using side-sonar equipment.
"The U.S. Coast Guard greatly appreciates the support and cooperation of the Honduran authorities as we worked together to recover the drugs from the sunken SPSS," said Capt. Brendan McPherson, Seventh Coast Guard District chief of enforcement. "In addition, the technical expertise of the FBI dive team was instrumental in the success of this unique operation in international waters, far from U.S. shores, that ultimately prevented tons of cocaine from reaching our streets and neighborhoods."
The FBI Laboratory's Technical Dive Team from Quantico, Va., was able to recover nearly 15,000 pounds of contraband worth an estimated street value of $180 million from the sunken SPSS.
"Working on a buoy deck is dangerous enough; but this unique mission involved blending dive operations, boat operations, and deck operations at the same time," said Lt. Cmdr. Peter Niles, commanding officer of the cutter Oak. "The equipment the FBI brought to the Oak and their dive teams were essential to locate the SPSS and recover its cargo."
Built in the FARC-controlled jungles of Colombia, the typical SPSS is less than 100 feet in length, with 4-5 crew members, and carrying up to 10 metric tons of illicit cargo for distances up to 5,000 miles. Drug traffickers design SPSS to rapidly sink when they detect law enforcement thereby making contraband recovery difficult. SPSS are responsible for the movement of nearly one-third of all cocaine in the transit zone.
"I am very proud of the brave efforts of the crew to stop the SPSS, apprehend the smugglers and obtain evidence prior to the vessel sinking," said Cmdr. Charles Fosse, commanding officer of the cutter Seneca. "The teamwork of the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection and Joint Interagency Taskforce South personnel during this case was excellent and it is gratifying to see this crew's exceptional skills, persistence and hard work yield such tangible results with direct impact on our communities back home."
The U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, Customs and Border Protection, Joint Interagency Task Force South, and partner nation aircraft and vessels work together to conduct counter drug patrols in the Caribbean.
"Medium-endurance cutters like the Seneca are built for sustained offshore patrols including those that require enhanced communications, and helicopter and pursuit boat operations such as this, they provide a key capability for the nation's homeland security operations at sea and allow us to fight the threats to our homeland security before they arrive at our doorstep," said Rear Adm. William Baumgartner, commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District headquartered in Miami. "Our goal is to interdict cocaine at sea when it is still concentrated in large loads before those drugs can be broken into small loads and smuggled across our border with Mexico."
The case is under investigation. The contraband will be turned over later to other U.S. law enforcement agencies for disposition.