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The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Stratton is patrolling south of the Guatemala-El Salvador border, along the biggest narcotics smuggling corridor in the world, attempting to stop cocaine bound for America’s cities. “In the earlier days, when you wouldn’t see or catch anything, we used to pat ourselves on our back and say we must’ve deterred them,” Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, told military.com. “Now, rarely 72 hours go by when you don’t have an event or we send a ship down there that doesn’t come back with multiple interdictions.”
The cutter is assisted by a ScanEagle with the support of aircraft radar. When a target is identified – a go-fast boat slides down a rear ramp into the water to chase it.
The Stratton’s biggest bust, which is also a Coast Guard record, came in 2015 when it found more than 7,000 Kilograms of cocaine worth $225 million before the smuggling craft, a hard-to-detect semi-submersible vessel, sank with some of its cargo still aboard.
The Coast Guard has been coming back with ever-larger hauls, setting a record in 2016, seizing over 240 tons of cocaine with a value of $5.9 billion and arresting 585 smugglers.
Last year, the amount of land devoted to coca cultivation in Colombia climbed 18 percent to an estimated 465,000 acres, according to a report from the White House. That’s more drug production than at any time since the U.S. in 1999 began investing billions in an anti-narcotics strategy known as Plan Colombia.
“What we know here out at sea is that the business has been really good in the last couple of years,” said Capt. Nathan Moore, the Stratton’s skipper.
The surge is being driven in part by Colombia’s decision in 2015 to suspend aerial spraying of crop-destroying herbicides because of health concerns. Also, at the same time, there was a rush among peasant farmers to start growing coca so they could take advantage of generous payments to switch to legal crops being offered as part of a peace deal between the government and Colombia’s rebels.
Thus far, 55,000 families have signed pledges to rip up 48,000 hectares of coca over two years. The government is also expanding manual eradication of coca, a slower and far more dangerous task, with the goal of destroying 50,000 hectares this year alone. However, many experts are skeptical that poor farmers will renounce coca growing, especially as criminal gangs fill the void left by the retreating rebels. Also, a successful drug run can net each smuggler a small fortune that makes it well worth the risk of a long prison sentence for many.
These numbers may hold the explanation why, despite the Coast Guard’s technological superiority, four drug-running boats are thought to get through for every one caught, Zukunft said. Those taken into custody for smuggling are put in white hazmat suits, given health exams and then led into a converted helicopter hangar aboard the Stratton, where they are shackled to the floor and issued a wool blanket, toiletries, and a cot or a foam mat. Eventually, they are flown to the U.S. and prosecuted at American expense. The alternative would be to seek prosecution in Central American countries such as Honduras, where the vast majority of crimes go unpunished. More than a dozen nations in Central and South America have essentially outsourced their drug-interdiction efforts to the U.S.