U.S. seizes 6 tons of cocaine worth $203m off Panama

The U.S. Coast Guard said it has seized more than 12,800 pounds (6 tons) of cocaine and apprehended four suspected drug smugglers from a self-propelled semisubmersible it busted off the coast of Panama earlier this month.

The submersible was first detected by a Customs and Border Protection aircraft, which notified the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf from Alameda, California leading to the interception of the vessel about 300 miles southwest of Panama on March 3.

The cocaine found on the vessel has a street value of more than $203 million. Crews also discovered a loaded gun in the cockpit of the vessel.

After removing the drugs and other contraband, the U.S. coast guard scuttled the submersible. An earlier statement from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the vessel sank with the drugs.

“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 self-propelled semisubmersible (SPSS) vessels, which are specifically constructed for illicit trafficking with a low profile, mostly submerged hull. Only a small cockpit and exhaust pipe are visible just above water, making them extremely difficult to detect and interdict.

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 USCGC Northland interdicted an SPSS approximately 280-miles southwest of the Mexican-Guatemalan border in January 2016. The suspects in that case scuttled vessel as the Coast Guard arrived at the scene and the suspects 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.”

The use of SPSSs’ for smuggling have been known since the first one was intercepted in 2012. Since then, multiple interdictions and other cases have 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.

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