Drug War On the High Seas: Behind the Coast Guard’s Billion-Dollar Busts

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 Photographs Courtesy PA2 Christopher M. Yaw / USCG


The thwap, thwap, thwap of a rotor’s blades is the first indication that the smugglers are screwed. Out in the Pacific, 200 miles southwest of Guatemala, three Ecuadorean men look up to see an orange helicopter locked onto their 35-foot boat. If successful, their weeklong drug run would have netted each of them a year’s income. Instead, they now start heaving $25 million worth of cocaine overboard.

“Typical Ecuadorean-style panga,” Lieutenant Commander James Terrell announced when the boat was first spotted that morning. “There’s no reason for it to be in that area.”

When Terrell got word of the panga — a narrow, high-speed boat that’s often 40 feet long — from a plane monitoring the area, the seas were too rough to launch the helicopter and interceptor boats. So the U.S. Cutter Bertholf, the Coast Guard’s most advanced counternarcotics ship, waited. As the Bertholf’s operations officer, Terrell is essentially the quarterback for drug interdictions, responsible for synchronizing everything so it goes off without anyone getting killed. It took until early evening, when the ocean was calm enough, before he gave the order to go.

While the smugglers frantically dump their cargo overboard, the helicopter pilot radios in to the boat and orders them to stop. But the boat speeds up, its bow shooting up and slamming down through five-foot swells.

From the open side hatch of the helicopter, a sniper blasts thirteen .50 caliber bullets into water at the boat’s bow. Then he fires more warning shots near the two outboard motors. Finally the panga slows to a halt and the chase is over.

As the sun lowers on the horizon, five maritime officers in body armor pull up alongside the panga in a 35-foot inflatable boat with their guns raised. “Somos la Guarda Costa de los Estados Unidos. ¡Manos arriba!” shouts Petty Officer First Class Alex Luna.

Luna, stocky and barrel-chested, is the point person for making contact with smugglers, and he’s participated in every Bertholf interdiction in the last three years. This one is as routine as it gets: Three smugglers surrender and 750 kilograms of cocaine is seized. It’s the first of four interdictions in six days. “Every bust we make, that’s drugs that aren’t reaching America,” Luna says. “It’s poison that doesn’t reach our streets.”

In the THC-euphoria surrounding the marijuana-legalization bills sweeping the country, it’s easy to forget that we’re still fighting an $85 billion coke war. And these days it’s the Coast Guard, the fifth, forgotten branch of the military, that’s on the front lines. While a local task force may gloat about confiscating a few million dollars’ worth of blow, between 2010 and 2015 the Coast Guard captured more than 500 tons of pure, uncut cocaine, with a wholesale value of nearly $15 billion.

It’s a remarkable feat, considering the size of the area the Coast Guard monitors: six million square miles, from the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to the entire eastern Pacific Ocean. Often, the Coast Guard patrols the Pacific with just three cutters like the 418-foot, 4,500-ton Bertholf. As one high-ranking admiral explains: “Imagine a police force trying to cover the entire U.S. with three cars. That’s the tactical problem we’re trying to solve.”

Still, the latest hauls suggest they’re gaining on the cartels. The fleet set a record in 2015, busting 503 smugglers and pulling in more drugs than in the previous three years combined. The success is due in part to a rebound from severe budget cuts, but also to improved intelligence: High-seas smugglers, it turns out, aren’t exactly tight-lipped.

“This is not the Italian Mafia, where nobody talks,” says Peter Hatch, a Homeland Security director. “These guys all talk.”

From 2002 to 2011, according to the Coast Guard, its interdictions and the subsequent intel it gained on the cartels led to the extradition of nearly 75 percent of all Colombian drug kingpins. It also helped take down cocaine czar Carlos Arnoldo Lobo of Honduras and contributed to the second capture of narco-billionaire Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

At some point the detainees from the latest bust will be brought to U.S. shores to stand trial. But for now officers escort them to the helicopter hangar. When the military introduced the Bertholf in 2008 — the first of what will eventually be nine new high-endurance cutters — it did not expect the success it would unleash. “Even the Coast Guard didn’t know how capable this ship was going to be,” Terrell says. “They didn’t build a jail.”

It’s past 1 AM, nearly 20 hours since first spotting the panga, when officers bring the smugglers onboard. At the exposed stern, beneath dim red lights that keep the ship inconspicuous at night, Luna pats down one shoeless Ecuadorian wearing jeans, a black shirt stained with sweat and a gold chain. A few feet away an officer watches over a smuggler in a collared t-shirt that is so tight his belly hangs out over his cargo shorts. After their search, the smugglers are examined by medics, undressed, and outfitted with white Tyvek suits.

Then officers escort them to the hangar, in the middle of the ship. Its ceiling is high, but otherwise it’s the size of a living room. As the final smuggler is walked across the helicopter pad, he takes in the last ocean breeze he will feel for a while. He is brought to a foam mat in the hangar and then, like the others, shackled by his ankle to a steel cable embedded in the floor. Each detainee has a wool blanket, toiletries, and a pillow. One officer said he once placed chocolates atop the pillows, calling the accommodations “five-star quality.”

Following the long interdiction, Luna jokes with another officer. “You know what we should get for the hangar?” he says with a devilish grin. “A vacancy sign.”

These days the busts tend to blur together, the end of one bleeding into the beginning of another, drugs and detainees piling up. Fourteen hours after the smugglers from the first interdiction are put to bed, the next panga appears on the radar. This time the helicopter sniper is forced to shoot out the boat’s engines. “Our helicopters are armed,” says Lt. Laurence Chen, a tactical expert on the Bertholf. “If they try anything, they get turned into driftwood.” But the boarding goes smoothly. Soon three new Ecuadorean men join the rest of the detainees.

A scrawny D-student and skater punk from El Paso, Texas, Terrell joined the Coast Guard out of high school in 1996. Eighteen years later he assumed the Bertholf’s most complex position, operations officer. As such, he’s the person onboard that signals for the turbine engine boosts that propel the cutter in pursuit. He times boat launches into seas thrashed by winds catapulting off Lake Nicaragua. He pushes boarding officers on back-to-back busts or passes up pangas if the crew is gassed. Since he spends his waking hours chambered inside the Combat Information Center — a dark, frigid room of monitors, where all the classified intelligence is parsed — he wears a hoodie pulled over the sides of his thick-framed glasses and bushy mustache. He keeps two skateboards in his room and doodles graffiti-style art during briefings.

“I love watching the numbers stack up,” he says of the interdictions. “It feels good, like we aren’t just cutting holes in the water.”

Terrell appears out of place in the armed forces. Like most onboard, he has an outlandish, by military standards, hairdo: sides shaved, with a short flop of hair swept over the side, and a decidedly trashy mustache. Further diverging from the rest of the military, this crew is one-fifth female, including Captain Laura Collins, a former college softball and basketball player, who reinforces the laid-back culture. “It’s hours of boredom interrupted by moments of excitement,” she says of the missions. In her free time she crochets and does yoga on the bow.

“It’s a hurry-up-and-wait mentality,” bemoans Blake Gwinn, a Maritime Enforcement Specialist. Gwinn was one of the first to graduate with this rating in 2010, when the Coast Guard realized it needed to train elite officers exclusively on boarding tactics, like a maritime SWAT team.

Despite the draining hours between busts, this line of work suits Gwinn, who at 28 looks and acts closer to 18. “I’m an adrenaline junkie,” he says. He has the chemical compound for epinephrine tattooed on his right forearm to prove it. He rode bulls as a kid, including one named Bojangles that stomped on his collarbone, and he feels more personally connected to the mission than his shipmates. As a teenager raised in Paragould, a drug-addled city in the Arkansas Delta, he was the pole bearer at the funeral of a family friend who overdosed in a park on heroin.

“I’ve watched families and communities fall apart,” he says. “You go to some big cities and it seems that things aren’t changing. So that’s why I’m out here… to me, the war on drugs will never end.”

During the long wait between interdictions, Coasties, as they call themselves, are responsible for monitoring engines, standing watch over a barren horizon for any sign

of a boat, and sitting in lawn chairs guarding detainees. In their downtime they play

video games, watch TV shows stored on voluminous hard drives, and occasionally fish off the bow of the ship. When it’s slow, a collective dark humor envelops the crew.

“I watched a guy wipe his ass 10 times today,” one officer on guard duty says.

“I counted.”

Detainment is a tricky matter in international waters. When boarding the smugglers’ vessel, the Coast Guard must navigate an entanglement of rules to respect various countries’ sovereignty. These arrangements are meant to streamline the process of giving the U.S. jurisdiction to search foreign vessels. Still, it often takes half a day to transmit information through multiple bureaucracies and to hear back with approval before officers are allowed to board and detain the smugglers.

This is all assuming they find evidence of drugs. Smugglers sometimes hand off shipments at sea to another panga that finishes the drug run. Last year the Bertholf conducted two simultaneous boardings that lasted 13 hours, and both came up empty.

“Everyone out here is dirty,” Chen says. “It’s just whether they’re dirty right now.”

Once apprehended, detainees can be held at sea for weeks or months until they get transferred to the U.S. for prosecution. Some may not touch land for 100 days. In order to avoid breaking any laws, the Coast Guard must hold detainees in international waters. So when a cutter makes a foreign-port call to restock the ship, the smugglers are off-loaded onto another vessel that remains at sea.

New detainees will occasionally know the others already in custody. Once, an entire group stood up and bowed for two heavily tattooed Mexican smugglers, a rare catch on the Pacific. “It definitely made me nervous,” says the officer who witnessed the encounter. Another time, an Ecuadorean fisherman gave his pancakes to a Colombian in what seemed like a sign of respect — or at least subservience.

“I’ve always had sympathy for them,” Captain Collins says. “They’re the worker bees. They look desperate. Sometimes they’re dressed in clothes that are, like, rags, frankly. They come with no shoes. They don’t look tall and well-fed and athletic, like we all look.”

During the most recent patrol, the Bertolf took on a detainee with an ulcerated scrotum suffered from saltwater rashes.

“You’ll see tears in their eyes, and people are like, ‘Oh my God, I feel sorry for them,’ ” says Luna, who estimates he’s done around 150 boardings, more than anyone on the Bertholf. “I don’t feel sorry for them. I understand that they’re going through hardship back in their country, but there’s also guys that are doing this because it’s their business.”

Guards shower detainees daily, take them to a makeshift toilet — a metal box with a hole on the top that is flushed out with a hose — and serve them the same three meals that the crew gets. Most officers consider these basic living standards fair treatment, but they do not sit right with everyone.

“These detainees are about to get steak,” Petty Officer First Class Phil Lago says one night after dinner. “That’s bullshit. They’re all criminals,” he adds, shaking his head disapprovingly.

His wary view of smugglers fortified in 15 years with the Coast Guard. After one bust, Lago, a soft-spoken father of four with salt-and-pepper hair, had to subdue a panicky detainee. Officers assumed the smuggler was high when they saw his dilated pupils. He scratched the back of his hand compulsively and wore a locket containing hair he said came from his sister. He got squirrely, saying he feared the officers would kill him, and kicked Lago in the knee. Lago and another officer then used a modified takedown, slamming the smuggler’s face into the jagged nonskid floor of the stern.

The episode firmed Lago’s disgust. He later recalled a time when two hangars were filled with 35 detainees. “It stunk so bad in there.” Showers did not dispel the fetid odor. “It still stunk. So bad. Horrid. Like, uchk. It smelled like a bunch of immigrants in a hangar.” His face wilted at the memory.

The Coast Guard knows of up to 90 percent of the drug shipments that are being trafficked across the ocean. It knows who is sending them and where they are headed. It also knows that the best shot at stopping the drugs from entering the U.S. is catching them before they reach Mexico, where they are then brought across the border by nearly any means available. But the Coast Guard has the resources to stop only between 11 and 20 percent of high-seas shipments in a given year.

“We’re going to grind ourselves trying to do as much good as we can, only getting 20 percent,” Petty Officer First Class Jonathan D’Arcy says. “That’s our plight in life.”

D’Arcy signed up for the service after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, expecting to save lives. This hope has faded over time. The endless interdictions have burned him out.

“I tell my daughter, ‘Daddy’s doing good, busting bad guys and saving turtles,’ because she’s six years old,” he says. “But when she’s 16, it’ll be like, ‘Yeah, we get 20 percent of the drugs, and the rest go to your friends.’ ”

The Coast Guard gives smugglers several chances to comply during interdictions: The helicopter radios in multiple times with orders to stop, the sniper fires more than a dozen warning shots, boarding officers gradually cajole them during extensive interviews and everyone involved waits hours for approval to conduct proper searches of the vessel. It’s all a hassle. Sometimes it is wasted effort. Occasionally it is perilous. If warning shots do not stop them, D’Arcy wants authorization to use lethal force. All that would be left, he says, is “a greasy white spot on the ocean.”

“It would be killing. I get that: it would be killing. But how much are those drugs killing?” he says. “I don’t know. I don’t make these rules. I enforce them.”

Over the last two decades of counterdrug operations only one Coast Guard vessel suffered a deadly attack by smugglers in U.S. waters. D’Arcy was onboard. Mexican smugglers rammed into D’Arcy’s boat in an attempted escape. The crash hurled an officer into the water and a propeller fatally struck him in the head. “Maybe I feel like I wasn’t protecting my shipmates,” Darcy says of the lasting trauma. “Maybe I harbor survivor’s guilt. I think I do. Does that make me ineffective or more effective?”

Nearly every boat the Coast Guard catches is a panga. But in recent years the cartels have turned to self-propelled semi-submersibles (SPSS) that quietly bob across the ocean, usually with a four-man crew crammed inside. An SPSS costs around $500,000 to build and can deliver loads worth hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re constructed from wood and fiberglass in the Colombian jungles, with an exhaust pipe barely visible above water. A low profile and blue paint make them almost impossible to detect with the naked eye. It’s mostly by chance that a maritime aircraft spots one, using infrared, and then it sends down a light beam for a cutter to see.

Coasties fantasize about finding a drug submarine as if it were Moby Dick, and the Coast Guard has interdicted 38 of these narco-subs since discovering the first one in 2006. But for all the chest-thumping these megabusts inspire, they illuminate a more troublesome truth: Tactics are not deciding the drug war; resources are. There is no telling how many subs are slipping through.

In March, the Bertholf steamed 500 miles northwest of the Galápagos to catch its mother lode: a 40-foot sub stuffed with over $200 million worth of cocaine. The Department of Justice has withheld details about the latest boarding, but an SPSS bust last August illustrates how difficult it is to board these crude coke whales.

No Bertholf crew member had ever encountered an SPSS at that point, so a shoddy plan formed: leap on top of the submarine, bang on the hatch and wait with guns drawn for the smugglers to open up. That plan went awry quickly. As two interceptor boats closed in, a man unexpectedly popped out of the hatch to discard waste.

“He was throwing out a piss bottle,” Terrell recalls. Both the officers and submarine crew were caught off guard. Officers swarmed in and yanked the smugglers onto their boats. “This thing was huge,” Terrell says of the sub. “You could kick soccer balls in there.” Officers spent the next two days lifting out individual cocaine bricks with fishing gaffs while wearing protective clothing. (Despite Hollywood portrayals, uncut cocaine is lethal to ingest and can make you sick just from touching it.) They managed to recover 6,845 kilograms before the submarine became unbalanced, flipped over, and sank, releasing kilos like a hemorrhaged piñata.

Scores like that fuel the exhausting missions. By early April, the Bertholf returned to Alameda, California, after interdicting 22 smugglers and over 11 tons of cocaine, valued at $329 million. Even though cartels still thrive, this has got to sting.

“Not enforcing the law is not the answer,” Terrell says, pointing to the never-ending demand for drugs. “I think most people understand that it’s a problem that has to be attacked from both sides, and we’re doing our part. That’s how the crew internalizes it. We get disappointed, but we move on. We have to. We know there’s more coming.”