Florida Keys News
Saturday, August 17, 2013
JIATF helps in 2 drug busts that net $100M in cocaine

Truman Annex-based Joint Interagency Task Force South took part in two major drug busts this month that yielded more than 3,600 pounds of cocaine worth more than $100 million.

In the first incident, JIATF helped British and U.S. crews seize more than 1,500 pounds of cocaine worth more than $24 million during a single interdiction this month.

The Coast Guard, British Royal Navy and other U.S. law enforcement officers seized the drugs, sank a go-fast vessel and detained three suspected smugglers during an at-sea interdiction Aug. 9 in the Caribbean Sea near Puerto Rico. The operation was part of Operation Martillo, a counterdrug effort among 15 nations.

Officials from JIATF told Coast Guard watchstanders in Miami and Puerto Rico that a U.S. Customs and Border Protection airplane had spotted a suspicious 30-foot go-fast boat carrying three suspected smugglers in the Caribbean Sea.

The British Navy frigate HMS Lancaster, which was in Key West in June preparing for its participation in Operation Martillo, responded and launched a helicopter and a high-speed boat carrying a Coast Guard boarding team to intercept the go-fast vessel, according to Coast Guard, JIATF and British Navy press releases.

Some of the seized 22 bales of cocaine were tossed overboard by the suspected smugglers, and later divers recovered them.

The three suspects were turned over to Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Puerto Rico.

Lancaster crews then shot and burned the go-fast vessel until it sank, according to published British media reports.

"Everything came together," Steven DePalmer, JIATF deputy director, said in a prepared statement to The Citizen. "JIATF South is merely the coalescing element in these interdictions. Under Operation Martillo, U.S. and international law enforcement and military organizations -- working together -- have disrupted 19 metric tons of cocaine in July alone. We're very proud of the professionalism of HMS Lancaster's crew, the Coast Guard, and all the agencies involved in this interdiction."

The Aug. 9 seizure marked the third joint operation with the HMS Lancaster crew in the past three weeks, DePalmer added.

"JIATF South is an intelligence-driven organization and it's become standard -- almost routine -- for U.S. and international partners to share information and coordinate operations, supply assets and stop these traffickers from delivering their illegal cargo," DePalmer said.

In the second operation, the San Diego-based, guided-missile frigate USS Rentz seized 2,123 pounds of cocaine worth $78 million from a fishing boat near the Galapagos Islands two weeks ago, according to a Navy press release.

The Rentz recently returned to the eastern Pacific Ocean in support of Operation Martillo after a hiatus due to the national forced budget cuts known as sequestration.

Operation Martillo began Jan. 15, 2012, and since then, JIATF-related crews have completed 332 missions and seized 220 metric tons of cocaine, 41,600 pounds of marijuana, detained 496 suspected smugglers and seized or destroyed 155 aircraft and vessels used for smuggling drugs, said JIATF spokeswoman Jody Draves.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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