Cocaine cowboys: Inside the US Coast Guard's war on drugs

"Nightline" embedded with the Coast Guard, which seizes three times the cocaine as all other U.S. law enforcement agencies combined, on its mission to intercept drug boats in international waters.
10:13 | 08/15/19

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Transcript for Cocaine cowboys: Inside the US Coast Guard's war on drugs
Here in the vast, pacific ocean along the Americas -- there is a borderless war that pits drug smugglers against U.S. Coast guard crew. Moments like this are the latest frontier of drug busts. Where vessels, like this so-called "Narco-sub," are intercepted carrying more than 17,000 pounds of cocaine. And high-speed pursuits break out on the high seas as drug smugglers race to toss bales of narcotics overboard before they are cornered. We've gained special access inside the tactical operations of the U.S. Coast guard, an agency that seizes three times as much cocaine as all other U.S. Law enforcement combined. And we witness firsthand the new frontlines of the war on drugs. Our journey begins on the coast of El Salvador in 2017, where the coast guard cutter "Stratton" is preparing to depart. This crew patrols the eastern pacific day in and day out, with the help of other agencies and even international partners. It's mission -- to find and intercept drug boats carrying uncut cocaine before they can reach land. These waters, officials say, now the preferred routes to smuggle dope. Over the last year the coast guards took over 455,000 pounds of cocaine off the water. Captain Craig is in charge of this crew of about 140 people. Do you know what the normal path of one of these fast boats loaded with cocaine would be? It emanates from South America, and it can go a number of routes right. When you when you have that much geography that you cover, these boats will take all sorts of evasive routes so they can invade law enforcement assets. So they're going way out to sea. You know, sometimes we're, you know, thousand-plus miles from land. He says that intercepting the drugs at this point has a direct impact on our border security. Our land border really starts at sea. Because what happens is this product goes into central America. Those cartels and those criminal organizations really destabilize rule of law in those areas. So much so that folks migrate to the United States. They want a better place to live. It destabilizes them and places pressure on our southwest border. In between drug busts, this crew is always at the ready. That means constantly maintaining the mind, body and boat. Right now, we're finishing up boat check. We do them every morning for each boat. When Janae Davis first joined the coast guard, she didn't realize just how much of her job would be on the frontlines of the drug war. When people tend to ask me, you know, what it is I do, I usually tell them, you know, I drive boats and I shoot guns. And that pretty much sums it up. The crew takes us deep into the belly of the "Stratton," to this extremely secure storage room already packed to the ceiling with bales of confiscated cocaine, the result of about a month of open water busts. Back in the '90s, a lot of this movement of contraband came through the caribbean. But they've come out here to the eastern pacific where they have a bigger playground to move their illegal gains. But in this playground, deep in the pacific, the coast guard says it has the upper hand. Armed with the latest technology and ammunition. The technology has played a huge role. That really gives us an edge on tracking down targets and, you know, allowing us to catch the bad guys. Reporter: While we're there, a tip comes in from one of the partners, coast guard's partners flagging a potential smuggling boat. So the crew launches their drone to serve as eyes in the sky. And within minutes, it precisely locates alleged smugglers. It's go time. It takes just minutes for a team of eight to gear up. If we got eyes on these guys, we're going to take them down. The team splits up into two smaller boats. Soon enough, they're at full throttle. It's almost like you're on a roller coaster when you're going up that peak. Your heart's beating out of your chest. But then once you're on the ride, you're on the ride. In about 15 minutes, the first boat reaches the suspects. With their hands up, they surrender. Three coastguardsmen jump on board to take them into custody as the second boat collects bales of suspected contraband that was thrown into the ocean during the chase -- How important is it to actually pick up the evidence I you need to pick up a sample of what they were tossing over the side. After hours of gathering over a dozen heavy bales, the job isn't done. They must test it on the spot to confirm it's indeed cocaine. In one case here, take about a ton of dope off the water. That's about $3.5 million for that amount. The evidence and the suspects transferred to the cutter. These are pretty low-level guys. It depends. You never know what you get out at sea. Each guy that we interdict out there, he could have potential information on someone else in the network. The idea is that if you flip the guys that you already bust, then you get information that helps you find the next guy? Absolutely. It's a big cycle of success, right? You may get information on the leadership of a criminal network. That's what's important. Despite claims of success, some critics question just how helpful the information gleaned from these types of detainees actually is. Coast guard officials and others that I spoke with in the process of my reporting, and a federal judge said quite clearly, you know, most of these men are at the very bottom of the ladder in these drug organizations, and very often don't know anything at all about what it is that they're doing. Reporter Seth freed Wessler spent about a year looking into the coast guard's treatment of people in its custody, interviewing about two dozen detainees. His investigation, first published in 2017, titled "The coast guard's floating Guantanamos" in "New York Times magazine." These drug interdictions in international waters can be spectacular. And we see these images. But what we don't see is what happens after the interdiction when people are held in really troubling conditions aboard American ships. The ships don't have, say, cells where they would hold detainees. Instead, people are being shackled by an ankle to a cable or a peg on the ship itself, and just held there. Sometimes given a thin mat to sleep on. And it raises serious questions about the violation of these suspects' rights. Their human rights and their rights under U.S. Law. Reporter: The U.S. Coast guard telling us that all have access to medical facilities. Our cameras were not permitted to film detainees once they were brought on board the cutter. While we were there, about 30 were in custody held in a makeshift cell. This open hangar protected from the sun. This is the most detainees I've seen on board this vessel at one time. We usually have a fair amount. This is a lot for us, though. The detainees, watched by a coastguardsmen 24 hours a day. We want to make sure that their safety's taken care of, that their needs are taken care of. But at the same time, they're in custody. They're handcuffed and are not free to roam the vessel. In June of this year, the aclu filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Coast guard, alleging what they call "Inhumane" treatment of four Jamaican fishermen who were detained at sea. The coast guard said in a statement to ABC news that it -- "Cannot comment on current litigation, which is being handled by the department of justice. However, the coast guard treats each person with dignity and respect." Back on the "Stratton," it takes dozens of crew to transfer all those confiscated bales from the latest interdiction. In 2018 alone, the coast guard confiscated 460,000 pounds of uncut cocaine, which equates to roughly 4.18 billion individual doses, enough to provide a daily dose of cocaine to every person in the United States for 13 days straight. People can't even really fathom you're out there, lugging 3,000 pounds of pure cocaine off the boat. A few weeks later, back on land in San Diego, the bales of cocaine are counted and turned over to the Dea. What you're looking at here is $700 million worth of pure uncut cocaine. This is a result of 45 days of patrolling. Pretty amazing when you look at it. And for the "Stratton" crew, a fleeting moment to reflect on the greater mission. That's the best feeling, is knowing that these drugs aren't going to go on the street. You're doing your part to keep that away from people. It's a really good thing. It's a lot of work. But it's worth it. And it's affecting the community. And it's affecting families. And knowing that you're someone making a difference, I mean, it's a victory because you stopped that from happening. But their work far from over.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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