The commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard says that nobody realizes just how high the seas really are these days. They are full of dope.
So much so, in fact, that the Coast Guard recently has had to resort to shooting into marijuana-laden ships in the caribbean to stop them from landing tons of the stuff on American shores.
What could be called pot shots across the bow used to be enough to stop the smugglers trying to sneak their illegal cargoes of marijuana and hard drugs from Colombia and other countries to rendezvous points off Louisiana, Florida and other coastal states.
But Commandant John B. Hayes revealed that his cutters in the last two months, for the first time since Prohibition, have fired into two smuggler ships to make them stop. Marijuana worth $80 million was confiscated from those two ships alone, just a fraction of total Caribbean smuggling.
To Hayes, the skipper of the Coast Guard mandated to stop this drug-running on the high seas, the two recent confrontations represent how the battle is escalating. He lamented that the Coast Guard is putting up the best fight it can but is stretched too thin in cutters and men to do more than put a dent in the multibillion-dollar smuggling operations off American shores.He estimates that the $1.6 billion in drugs the Coast Guard confiscated last year was less than 20 percent of the seagoing trafficking.
The "enemy" has a big edge in numbers, planes and sometimes radio equipment, Coast Guard officers said. The dope rings send up light planes to keep track of patrolling cutters. The planes radio warnings down to dope-smuggling small boats and big cargo ships, suggesting courses to elude Coast Guard cutters. Once the smugglers' mother ships near shore, high-speed pick-up boats sneak out of harbors at night to rendezvous with them. This is an update of the technique used by rumrunners during Prohibition in the 1920s.
Despite such evasive tactics, the Coast Guard Cutter Point Francis one night in October spotted the 50-foot lobster vessel Thomas E. out of Norfolk chugging along in waters 150 miles east of Key West. The suspected smuggler doused running lights as the 82-foot cutter tried to close on her, ignored the Coast Guard's heave-to order and ran for Bahamian waters.
These teletyped messages between the Coast Guard skipper and his shore commanders tell the rest of that one battle in the escalating drug war in the Caribbean:
Lobster boat Thomas T., Norfolk, Va., has failed to heed order to stop. Request statement of no objection to fire warning shot . . . .
"District commander has no objection to firing of warning shots to stop subject as long as subject remains in international waters . . . .
"Observed grassy substance in wake of vessel, unable to retrieve . . . .
"Attempted to pour water into pilothouse. Unsuccessful . . . .
"Fired warning shots, 50-cal. machine gun. Ordered vessel to heave to. Negative results . .
"Miami reports commandant has authorized entry into Bahamian waters . . . .
"Completed attempts to get line caught in vessel's screw [propeller]. Unsuccessful . . . .
"Intend to follow vessel until seas improve. Then will attempt placing boarding party on board vessel with small boat . . . .
"Recommend utilization other Coast Guard units in area to maintain/relay communications . . . .
"HCl3l [aircraft] enroute to scene to act as communications/surveillance platform . . . .
"Point Francis [cutter] is authorized to fire disabling shots if necessary to stop subject . .
"Subject heaved to after Coast Guard Cutter Point Francis fired disabling shots into bow and stern . . . . Total of approximately 55 rounds fired into subject . . . .
"No personnel casualties to either crew of Point Francis or Thomas E. . . .
"Thomas E. taking on some water, but is seaworthy at this time . . . .
"Escort subject along with crew and contraband to Miami for prosecution."
Aboard the vessel a Coast Guard boarding party found 27,200 pounds of marijuana, worth $13 million if sold at street price of $30 an ounce. p
"A job well done," Hayes radioed cutter skipper Kim Kryzywicki and his crew.
In the second shooting last month, the Coast Guard cutter Spencer forced the cargo ship Polaris off Grand Isle, La., to stop by firing into a pile of rags on her stern, setting it afire.The bales of marijuana confiscated from the Polaris weighed 140,282 pounds, worth $67.3 million.
"This drug traffic is increasing all the time," said the beleaguered commander of the war offshore, Commandant Hayes.