Coast Guardsmen seized more than 12,800 pounds of cocaine and apprehended four suspected drug smugglers from a self-propelled semisubmersible, or SPSS, about 300 miles southwest of Panama March 3.
The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf from Alameda, California, was notified by a Customs and Border Protection aircraft about the SPSS off Panama. The Bertholf launched two interceptor boats to stop the suspected drug smuggling vessel, which was laden with more than $203 million worth of cocaine.
“Transnational organized crime groups continue to adjust their tactics to avoid detection indicated by a recent rise in the use of SPSS vessels,” said Vice Adm. Charles Ray, commander, Pacific Area. “Despite these efforts, we will continue to execute an offensive strategy that targets, attacks and disrupts these dangerous criminal networks.”
Since June 2015, the Coast Guard has interdicted five SPSS vessels. These vessels are constructed for illicit trafficking with a mostly submerged hull; a cockpit and exhaust pipe are visible just above water. These vessels are extremely difficult to detect and interdict because of their low-profile.
This is the second SPSS interdiction by the Coast Guard in Fiscal Year 2016, which runs from Oct. 1, 2015, to Sept. 30, 2016. The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Northland interdicted an SPSS approximately 280-miles southwest of the Mexican-Guatemalan border in January 2016. The suspects in that case scuttled the smuggling vessel as Coast Guardsmen arrived at the scene but were safely apprehended.
“SPSS interdictions are inherently dangerous, yet we persevere to disrupt the funding sources of illicit organizations causing violence and instability in Central America,” said Capt. Laura Collins, commanding officer of the Cutter Bertholf. “Our boarding teams are trained to constantly assess and prioritize the safety of our personnel and the SPSS crew during the case.”
Coast Guardsmen from Bertholf entered the SPSS numerous times to retrieve contraband and evidence. Boarding officers from Bertholf also discovered a loaded gun in the cockpit of the SPSS.
Both Fiscal Years 2015 and 2016 have been marked by multiple SPSS interdictions for the first time since Fiscal Year 2012. These multiple SPSS interdictions and other cases contributed to the Coast Guard removing more than 319,000 pounds of cocaine in Fiscal Year 2015. The Coast Guard has already removed more than 201,000 pounds in Fiscal Year 2016.
This is the second SPSS interdiction by Bertholf’s crew, which in 2015 seized over 20 tons of cocaine alone. This is the fifth SPSS interdiction for the 418-foot national security cutters, the service’s newest and most capable major cutter. Alameda-based national security seized almost 68,000 pounds of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific ocean in Fiscal Year 2015.