Over the past year, the U.S. Coast Guard has confiscated a record 56 tons of cocaine as it struggled against the latest trick in the smuggling trade, an armada of small, high-powered vessels that race across the Caribbean on a daily basis, officials will announce today.

The new contraband carriers, called "Go-Fast" boats by the Coast Guard, account for 85 percent of all the illicit maritime cocaine traffic--about 400 tons a year--into the United States, according to government intelligence estimates. Long, thin and low to the water, the boats can manage 40 to 50 knots, twice the top speed of a typical Coast Guard cutter.

In recent months, the Coast Guard has sent helicopters with sharpshooters to fire high-caliber bullets at the engines of fleeing vessels. The result, officials said, has been four seizures totaling 6,640 pounds of cocaine and marijuana.

Those new operations, along with several large seizures earlier in the year that stemmed from an intelligence breakthrough, pushed the Coast Guard's total cocaine haul for fiscal 1999 to nearly 112,000 pounds, compared with about 83,000 pounds the year before, officials said.

"We made significant investments in intelligence assets that improved our ability to detect where smugglers are departing from, the way points they use and their destinations," said Adm. James M. Loy, commandant of the Coast Guard. The money for those assets--primarily upgraded radar and infrared-sensing equipment--came from $270 million in supplemental funds appropriated for Coast Guard drug interdiction efforts last year.

In addition, the seizure in January of the Cannes, a cargo ship carrying more than 5 tons of cocaine between Trinidad and Houston, provided information about a major smuggling network and led to the seizure of three other ships carrying more than 10 tons of cocaine, officials said.

Loy, who became commandant in May 1998, said the greatest challenge was in the southern Caribbean, where traffickers used to move cocaine easily by boat from Colombia to way stations in Mexico, Central America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. There, drugs were repackaged and shipped to the United States.

"We were getting beaten badly in the transit zone a year ago because the Go-Fasts were simply outrunning us," Loy said. They can travel from Colombia to Haiti, for example, in just 20 hours.