The US Coast Guard unloaded 27 tons of cocaine after a three-month operation in the Pacific and Caribbean, a massive haul that underscores how maritime drug flows and cocaine production remain at all-time highs.
During the three-month operation, which ended in early August, 10 ships stopped more than two dozen suspected drug smuggling vessels in international waters off the Pacific coasts of Central and South America and Mexico, as well as in the Caribbean. The operation was conducted alongside the Dutch and Canadian navies.
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Coast Guard Captain Todd Vance told reporters that the number of drugs offloaded at Port Everglades in Florida on August 5 was more than double the total amount of drugs interdicted at sea in the fall of 2020. According to its website, the Coast Guard accounts for more than half of cocaine seizures by US authorities.
InSight Crime Analysis
The record haul by the Coast Guard is in line with current drug trafficking trends, as traffickers shift to maritime routes to move drugs stockpiled during the pandemic.
First, even amid COVID-19, South American cocaine production continues to boom. According to the US Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), cocaine production increased in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia last year. A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report estimated that Colombia recorded a high of 1,228 tons of manufactured cocaine in 2020, an eight percent increase from 2019.
Second, traffickers are adapting operations to closures of land borders by focusing on maritime smuggling: loading cocaine in shipping containers on commercial vessels, as well as in “go-fast” boats and submarines. Major maritime seizures have occurred in Costa Rica, Colombia and Ecuador this year.
Third, criminal groups are clearing stockpiles of cocaine as movement restrictions are eased, according to the 2021 UNODC World Drug Report. In April, authorities in Puerto Rico blamed a string of large seizures on criminal groups transporting a backlog of cocaine. Central America, which serves as a waystation for cocaine shipments, is also seeing a surge in maritime trafficking. Panama and Honduras are both on track to see record cocaine seizures in 2021.
Lastly, the massive offload follows a recent expansion of maritime anti-drug operations by US Southern Command in April 2020 in response to a directive from the Trump administration. At the time, the United States deployed a phalanx of naval assets, including warships. The latest operation was far more limited in scope, consisting of mostly Coast Guard cutters and littoral combat ships.