A U.S. Coast Guard crew based in Northern California has seized several tons of cocaine worth an estimated $181 million from a partially submerged vessel in the Pacific Ocean, the agency announced Thursday.
The July 18 bust occurred in international waters 200 miles off the coast of Central America, after a Navy maritime patrol aircraft spotted the vessel and alerted the Alameda-based crew aboard the 420-foot Coast Guard cutter Stratton, which was patrolling the area, said Petty Officer Michael Anderson.
Video of the confrontation shows armed Coast Guard crew members opening the vessel's top — the craft is floating at the surface — and demanding its crew to climb out.
"Afuera! Afuera!" a Coast Guard crew member yelled.
One by one, the four men in the vessel climbed out. They were taken into custody, but authorities said it was unclear which federal agency would prosecute them.
Inside the vessel was 16,000 pounds of cocaine in hundreds of bails and bricks, Anderson said. The Coast Guard crewmen loaded 275 bales, or 12,000 pounds, of the cocaine onto the Stratton. They left 4,000 pounds of cocaine on board the vessel for balance as they towed it to shore.
"We're trying to hang onto that boat and sustain it and it let it ride better in the water," Anderson explained.
But before the Coast Guard could make it to shore, the smuggling vessel took on water and sank, cocaine and all. The depth where it sank was 13,000 feet, and the Coast Guard considers the cargo lost, Anderson said.
The smuggling vessels act like low-tech submarines, which are mostly submerged with only a cockpit and an exhaust pipe above the surface. They're extremely difficult to detect and dangerous to operate, Coast Guard officials say.
The vessels' operators have been known to sink their cargo instead of having it seized, and sometimes crew members drown, Coast Guard officials said.
The bust was the second by the Stratton crew this summer, officials said. In June, they stopped another partially submerged vessel carrying 5,460 pounds of cocaine. Since April, the crew has stopped or interrupted 15 smuggling attempts in the Pacific, the agency said.
Since May, the Stratton crew has seized more than 33,000 pounds of cocaine worth more than $540 million.
In recent years, drug smugglers have turned to the sea as authorities on both sides of the Mexican border have attempted to crack down on land-smuggling routes.
There have been 25 known semi-submersible interdictions in the eastern Pacific since 2006. The patrols are a joint effort between the Coast Guard, Navy and cooperating governments in Central America, officials said.