After four months at sea, a US Coast Guard mission has returned to shore carrying $1bn in confiscated cocaine and heroin, hailed by officials as the largest drug off-load in history.
The mission arrived to the naval base in San Diego, California, with 32 metric tonnes of cocaine and two tonnes of heroin – a weight equivalent to 17 average-sized cars. The entire cargo took more than four hours to unload.
“There is still work to be done,” Admiral Paul Zukunft, commandant of the coastguard, said in a statement.
“We must increase already hard-earned momentum to curb the rising tide of crime, violence and instability in our hemisphere.”
Composed of three vessels skirting around the coasts of Mexico, Central, and South America, the mission seized contraband through 30 separate interdictions of smuggling vessels. The operation lasted from April to July and was led by the coastguard cutter Stratton.
The drugs were all destined for the US, where the cocaine alone would have amounted to 33 million “lines” for snorting, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
Wholesale value of the entire cargo exceeded $1bn.
“I’m not in the market of selling this, but trust me, on the street it would sell for much more,” Zukunft added.
Stratton encountered drug-carrying vessels ranging from submarines to slimmer, outboard-powered fishing boats called pangas, which can stretch to up to 15 metres long.
Hard-to-spot pangas are notorious for their use among rings like Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the US’ most-wanted criminal who made headlines this year after escaping from prison.
California has seen a recent increase in overseas smuggling of drugs like cocaine, heroin and cannabis, ever since constricting land borders caused illegal trade to shift to water.
In the 2013 fiscal year, the area of boat seizures has tripled for the coastguard, the only US military service able to make drug arrests hundreds of kilometres offshore.
For the coastguard, which has seized more narcotics this year than the past three years combined, the Stratton mission has been an encouraging success – especially in light of 2013 federal budget cuts that sliced the coastguard’s operating costs by 25 percent.
Federal officials declined to identify the cartels suspected in transporting the drugs seized by the Stratton.
The narcotics, labelled with evidence tags, were to be moved to a secret location where they eventually will be destroyed, the coastguard said.