Astoria-based US Coast Guard Cutter part of low-profile boat smuggling interdiction

by Stuart Tomlinson Thursday, October 5th 2017

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The US Coast Guard Cutter Steadfast– stationed in Astoria– is one of six Coast Guard ships that have seized a combined 23,000 pounds of cocaine since early June.

The drugs were seized from low profile smuggling boats operating along the west coast of the Americas.

It was a fairly typical early morning for the 210-foot coast guard cutter steadfast as it plied the waters off Central America on august 14th.

The 75 crew members were working drug interdiction with four other cutters, a naval vessel and spotter planes– when they intercepted a low profile boat they suspected had cocaine in its cargo hold.

“This one was an early morning interdiction, it was raining–the weather was terrible,” said Steadfast’s skipper, Commander Alain Balmaceda. “It never seems to happen on a day right in the afternoon, on a perfect day in perfect seas, in perfect conditions. But we were lucky enough to be able to spot and stop the vessel despite its low detection signal.”

Cdr. Balmaceda says the low profile smuggling boats are built to escape detection.

They usually carry cocaine, three or four crew members and barrels of fuel to run powerful outboard motors.

“Their main goal is to escape detection using a low profile vessel, which is more or less a low, freeboard vessel which is unable to be detected by radar and hard to see visually,” he said

The crew seized 6,000 pounds of cocaine, and arrested four crew members; that’s a fourth of the total haul of cocaine for the coast guard in four months.

The success rate is tied to changes in tactics.

“The cartels are really changing their tactics to adapt to be detected at sea,” Balmaceda said “That’s clear that lot of their tactics are very new to us, so we’re adapting to how we’re handling our own interdiction methods as well to be able to detect them.”

In addition to low profile smuggling vessels, the coast guard has seized – and scuttled – low profile boats and submersibles that are not quite submarines.

“Not the typical what you would think of a large submarine transiting through the water,” Balmaceda explained. “It’s more like a drone skimming just below the surface.”

Before sailing to San Diego to off-load the three tons of cocaine and turn their prisoners over to authorities, the crew sank the vessel.

“We burn it and then shoot it,” he said “Sink itand then have it marked as a hazard to navigation.”

Coast Guard officials say as US and allied forces in the Eastern Pacific have increased their presence, so too have the trans-national drug cartels.

The Coast Guard expects to seize nearly 500,000 pounds of cocaine worth $6 billion in the next eight months.