Mohawk Cmdr. Mark Fedor was aboard the Coast Guard cutter's bridge in the western Caribbean Sea two months ago when he received word that sent nervous excitement throughout the 270-foot ship.
Off the Honduran coast, the Key West-based crew got the go-ahead to stop a drug cartel's makeshift submarine, vessels that have been found carrying tons of cocaine.
"It's the Super Bowl of drug interdictions in this part of the world," Fedor said Thursday aboard the Mohawk, which returned to its home port on Nov. 6. "These are huge interdictions in terms of the drugs on board. We're typically talking about metric tons."
Self-propelled semi-submersibles (SPSS), which remain partially above the water's surface, are built in the rivers of Colombia by drug cartels that use them to ship illicit cargo north -- typically to Mexico, where the drugs are then moved into the United States, Fedor said.
A typical SPSS is less than 100 feet long and can carry up to 10 tons of drugs and four or five crew members as far as 5,000 miles, according to the Coast Guard.
"They're so elusive, we've called them 'Bigfoot,' " Fedor said. "They've developed this almost mythical reputation, because they're very hard to catch."
No ship nor crew based in Key West, such as the Mohawk, had ever found such a submarine. Their luck was about to change on Sept. 17, and Fedor took a moment to gather his command staff and small-boat boarding crew to review their mission before they stopped the submarine.
"The adrenaline was going, so we went over everybody's job one more time and made sure everyone was on the same page -- the boarding team, the snipers on the helicopter, everyone," Fedor said, smiling. "This is a professional crew, a great group of guys, but everyone gets hyped up, so you go back over safety one more time before you go."
The Mohawk crew arrested four men before the sub sank in 1,000 feet of water, scuttled by its own crew to destroy the evidence.
"It's illegal to even operate one of these vessels in international waters, so we arrested the men on board," Fedor said. "And we did manage to secure two bails of cocaine that floated to the surface, so that was another charge."
The Mohawk crew was still reeling from its first SPSS stop two weeks later when, on Sept. 30, they hit the mother lode. The Mohawk made national headlines in Coast Guard circles when it stopped its second -- and only the third ever -- SPSS in about 80 feet of water. It was carrying 9 tons of cocaine worth more $300 million.
That marked the first time that Fedor could recall a Coast Guard vessel firing warning shots at an SPSS in an attempt to force its crew to stop, he said. The warning shots came from the rifles of the same boarding team that stopped the first SPSS two weeks before.
"It was a tense moment," Fedor recalled. "We were talking to them in Spanish over the loud-hailer and flashing blue lights, but they wouldn't stop. Two men came to the top, but you don't know who else is on board, whether they are armed or what they're carrying."
A two-star Coast Guard admiral had to be awakened in the middle of the night to give the go-ahead orders to fire those warning shots, Fedor said. The SPSS crew sunk that sub too.
"They were only in about 80 feet of water, so there was no reason we couldn't dive and bring that 'white lobster' to the surface," Fedor said, referring to the cocaine that went down with the sub.
An FBI technical dive team from Virginia later recovered much of the drugs.
"It was definitely a big deal within the Coast Guard and for this crew," Fedor said as he walked through the galley, recognizing members of his staff. "We've received some nice words from admirals and we've been getting emails from all over. It means a lot to this crew to and to this community we represent. I couldn't be prouder."