Air, Land, and Sea
DEA on the Sea
Smuggling on the sea is one of the three main ways that criminal groups traffic drugs. It is also one of the oldest. Chinese immigrants became the first known drug smugglers when they began smuggling opium in merchant cargoes and baggage. Since then, drug smuggling by maritime routes has grown in size, scope, and sophistication. It is estimated that over nine million shipping containers arrive on large cargo ships each year and another 157,000 arrive on smaller vessels in many coastal towns across the U.S. These criminal groups smuggle cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, amphetamine, and marijuana.
The Early 20th Century
The U.S. Coast Guard Destroyer Terry was an early 20th-century, 742-ton, three-stack oil burner commissioned in June 1925. She patrolled the waters until October 1930 when she was decommissioned and returned to the Navy. The Terry is seen here in 1926 flanking the French rum schooner Mistinguett on the North Atlantic Coast outside the 12-mile limit. Smugglers with foreign registries could not be seized on the high seas until contact was made by fast speedboats that smuggled the contraband into port. This "trailing" method proved most effective.
The Terry flanking a rum schooner.
Cargo Ships and Drug Smuggling
Often, drugs are hidden among cargo items like bulk canned foods or dry items like coffee, rice, and flour. In small vessels they are hidden in concealed compartments in the hull and even in fuel tanks located deep in a ship's hold.
In Operation Journey, over $7 million was seized along with the maritime vessel Bulk Princess. Agents also targeted maritime smuggling operations in Colombia that moved their operations to Venezuela as a result of Operation Odessa. With cooperative law enforcement amongst agencies, DEA's Operation Journey seized more than nine tons of cocaine hidden by the DeLaVega drug trafficking organization.
The cargo vessel Bulk Princess.
This Haitian ship was transporting cocaine to the Bahamas when it was boarded and searched. The large amount of drugs was first stacked in the hold of the ship, then removed to a waiting vehicle for transport by DEA to an evidence room.
Sometimes vast quantities of drugs are seized from ships. The U.S. Coast Guard once unloaded approximately 1,900 pounds of marijuana confiscated on two separate incidents, two days apart. Eight Florida residents were arrested and transferred with their cargo to the USCGC Dauntless. Nearly four additional tons of marijuana was sunk by Coast Guard gunfire after the seizure.
Cocaine bricks removed from a Haitian ship.
Making a Stop on the High Seas
The U.S. Coast Guard boards go-fast boats outfitted with high-performance outboard engines. The fuel containers are retrofit in the bow and wind screens are used in place of windshields to increase the endurance of the trip. Two hundred kilograms of cocaine were confiscated on this stop.
The boats are designed to make quick getaways, necessitating the support of additional DEA units to track down. DEA intelligence helps to locate them and their points of origin. For example, surveillance aircraft can pass over a go-fast boat, snap pictures, and record vital intel.
DEA continues to patrol the waters in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard and the military to seek and destroy the drug trade until it is abolished.
The U.S. Coast Guard boarding a go-fast boat.
Technological innovations are important tools in uncovering smuggling operations. This hidden compartment was discovered aboard the Defense Rest, a 40-foot pleasure craft. DEA and the Coast Guard seized the vessel during the course of an investigation. Concealed in the hidden compartment was 397 kilograms of cocaine. An X-ray of the vessel by investigators shows the hidden compartment.
An X-ray of the Defense Rest.