$160 Million Of Cocaine Offloaded In St. Petersburg
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. . . . The Coast Guard Cutter Tornado will deliver more than 5,000 pounds of cocaine and six suspected smugglers to agents from Operation PANAMA EXPRESS here today.
The drugs were seized from a smuggling go-fast vessel April 16, through a team effort by the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine Operations, and the U.S. Navy.
The pursuit began in the early hours that morning when the go-fast was detected by a patrolling CBP AMO P-3 maritime patrol aircraft flying in support of Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-South), based in Key West, Fla.
JIATF South alerted the patrolling ships, USS Doyle, with an embarked Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment, and USCGC Forward, directing them to attempt to stop the suspicious vessel.
The crew of Doyle, using their embarked helicopter, began pursuit of the suspect vessel while the crew of Forward moved into position ahead of the fleeing go-fast. During the chase, the helicopter crew observed the suspected smugglers jettisoning possible contraband overboard.
More than five hours after the chase began, with Doyle's helicopter in pursuit, Forward was able to move in position to issue warning shots in front of the go-fast vessel compelling it to stop.
Once stopped, a boarding team from Forward was dispatched to the suspect vessel. The vessel was ultimately determined to be without nationality and subject to U.S. jurisdiction. The six people on board, five claiming to be Colombian and one Mexican, were taken into custody and transferred to Forward.
Meanwhile, Doyle and its helicopter conducted a search for the jettisoned contraband, eventually recovering 77 bales of cocaine, weighing approximately 5,100 pounds.
The drugs, with an import value of more than $160 million, represent the most recent seizure as a result of Operation PANAMA EXPRESS, a longstanding Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Investigation based out of Tampa, Fla.
Members of the "Operation Panama Express" team include the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, the U.S. Coast Guard, JIATF-South, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Internal Revenue Service - Criminal Investigative Division, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Sheriff's Offices from Pinellas and Sarasota Counties.
With five months still remaining in Fiscal Year 2005, which began Oct.
1, 2004, already more than 140,000 pounds of cocaine have been seized on the high seas. Prior to FY 2004's record shattering seizure of more than 240,000 pounds of cocaine, the record for maritime seizures had been 138,000 pounds.