March 21, 2007 -- At nearly 20 tons, it's the largest maritime cocaine bust in U.S. history. The U.S. Coast Guard announced today that it seized 42,845 pounds of the drug from the Gatun, a Panamanian ship. Two of the Coast Guard's cutters approached the ship Sunday after a patrol plane spotted the vessel about 20 miles southwest of the Panamanian coast.
Drug Enforcement Administration administrator Karen Tandy pointed out that usually drug traffickers store their caches in secret compartments or conceal them with other legitimate cargo, but this shipment wasn't exactly hidden.
"They simply loaded these bales of cocaine into cargo containers on the top of the deck of this freighter. They were hiding in plain sight on the main deck."
Charley Diaz captains of one of the Coast Guard ships that closed in on the Gatun. He said the Gatun's crew did not resist but appeared nervous as the Coast Guard approached the crew's vessel. Diaz acknowledged the Panamanian ship was carrying some legal cargo, but that the "bales [of cocaine] were just piled high" in containers on the ship's deck, "almost up to the ceiling," Diaz described. "To think that any one of those containers, any two containers, can hold this much drugs is eye-opening."
Hitting Drug Traffickers 'Where It Hurts'
Tandy estimated the haul of cocaine could have sold on the street for about $600 million. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, "Through collaboration, we've been able to strengthen our counternarcotics efforts, and to send a strong message to drug traffickers where it hurts -- in their pocket."
Cash, Drugs and Cartels
This bust blows past the old record of 30,109 pounds, seized from a ship in September 2004.
And the Coast Guard raid comes on the heels of a record-breaking cash seizure by the DEA last week. In cooperation with Mexican officials, that agency confiscated $205 million from chemical brokers who had provided Mexican cartels with the supplies to make methamphetamine.
In January, the DEA announced the extradition of 15 suspects tied to four Mexican drug cartels.
"That makes three big strikes in less than two months against the once untouchable and feared Mexican drug cartels that are responsible for so much of the drug supply in the United States," said Tandy.
'A Mentality of Impunity'
But these seizures of close to a billion in cash and drugs since the start of the year paint a picture of an illicit industry that is still booming. "I still think they operate with a mentality of impunity where they think they can get away with what they're doing," said Chertoff. "The fact is, it's a very lucrative business, where drug cartels make billions of dollars … the flagrant way in which they behave is a pretty good window into what is in their head."
The latest achievements on the battle front have given the U.S. government some hope that its victories can start to turn the tide. But with success comes a warning. "Experience shows that as you get more effective against criminal organizations, they get more violent," Chertoff said. That reaction, Chertoff noted, is "an unhappy indicator of the fact that they are beginning to sense a threat against their livelihood."
'Operation Panama Express'
The Coast Guard worked with the DEA and other components of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice under Operation Panama Express. Commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm.Thad Allen, credited the crews of the military branch's two cutters involved in the bust. One ship is 40 years old, and the crew was even working to fix some mechanical problems on the ship during the raid.
Allen said, "This does not happen alone. Coast Guard cannot execute these types of missions without the incredible support of our interagency partners and our international partners, in this case the country of Panama."
Officials arrested 14 crew members: three from Panama and 11 from Mexico. The Mexican crew members are on their way to Tampa, Fla., to face prosecution in the United States, while the Panamanian suspects have been turned over to face possible charges in Panama.
"The Gatun was the one big fish that didn't get away," Tandy said.