In the Zone: 15 minutes to launch
Posted by LT Katie Braynard, Monday, March 2, 2015
Editor’s note: This is a firsthand account of a drug interdiction from the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Mellon. The Coast Guard men and women aboard Mellon seized 700 pounds of cocaine during the interdiction Dec. 18, 2014.
Written by Seaman Sarah Wilson
“Now, go fast, go fast, go fast. All hands set the go fast bill. A go fast has been detected 30 nautical miles out, bearing 300 true.”
Minute 00. The message is read twice and echoes throughout the ship, accompanied by the eager blare of a police siren. From foc’sle to fantail, more than 150 sailors jump from their racks and hurry to dress, almost instantly breaking a sweat in the palpable East Pacific Ocean humidity. Passing each other as closely as gears in a machine, they maneuver down passageways and up ladder wells, rushing to their respective billets: The interceptor boats, the helicopter, the combat information center, the bridge. In just minutes, radios are energized, communications are established, and weapons are issued. All stations are manned and ready.
As if the sea itself was on fire, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mellon is alive.
“This is why we’re here,” says Petty Officer 1st Class Nicholas Sutton. “This is what we do.”
The Coast Guard maintains a constant presence in the Pacific and Caribbean– two key transit areas with known drug trafficking routes. Since the early 1970s, 378-foot cutters like the Mellon have been instrumental in the detection and interdiction of smugglers and narcotics on the high seas.
At sea, Coast Guard crews interdict about 80 percent of all narcotics seized by U.S. forces each year. On Mellon’s last Eastern Pacific patrol alone, the cutter seized 3,500 pounds of marijuana, 1,600 pounds of cocaine, and 32 pounds of methamphetamine.
“We are becoming more efficient each year thanks to improved communications and a unified approach between the Coast Guard and other agencies,” says Chief Petty Officer Brannon Buxton.
Every deployment requires months of logistics planning and research; this is spearheaded by the Joint Interagency Task Force South, or JIATF-S , a military hub that coordinates efforts to interdict narcotics trafficking to the U.S. and partner countries.
“Ten years ago, getting a bust was a matter of luck,” adds Chief Petty Officer Patrick Stultz. “Now, we have more precision (and) more calculated tactics.”
There is a key asset in every patrol that gives the operation its wings. Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron, or HITRON, is a Coast Guard aviation unit in Jacksonville, Florida, that deploys flight crews to accompany cutters on counter-narcotics patrols.
HITRON teams work in tandem with the cutter’s boat crews to locate and investigate targets of interest. Equipped with an arsenal of high caliber weapons, armed MH-65D helicopters give aviators the advantage of height, firepower and stealth over potentially non-compliant vessels.
“Our job on Mellon is to plan and place our assets to get the bust. There are a lot of moving parts, and it’s like a symphony – a chaotic symphony, sometimes,” laughs Buxton. “Everyone knows their place.”
Minute 15. Less than 300 nautical miles from the jungle-rimmed shores of Central America, Mellon has deployed its interceptor boats and HITRON crew to track a fast-moving, unlit vessel spotted by a maritime patrol aircraft. Traffickers often use small, open-hull fishing boats like this to smuggle drugs because they are easy to maneuver and small enough that they often escape radar. They are known as pangas.
Minute 20. “Cutter Mellon, this is 6504,” relays one pilot to the cutter. “We have eyes on the target. There appear to be three men on board a grey vessel with two outboard engines and no apparent fishing gear. There are large, unidentified packages on the deck, possibly bales covered by a tarp.”
The information is enough for Mellon’s cutter boats to make their move. If the helicopter is the eyes of the operation, the boats are the muscles. These multi-purpose, diesel-powered watercrafts are designed to handle everything from the violent waters of the Bering Sea to the high-speed pursuit unfolding now. Many of Mellon’s crew are qualified boarding team members trained in law enforcement tactics; each of them has spent months studying, sweating, and training for this very moment.
Minute 25. HITRON calls again. “Cutter Mellon, this is 6504. Target is slowing down. They might have heard us as we approached. The target appears to be coming to a stop, and we see splashes off both sides of the boat. It looks like the crew has jettisoned packages.”
Back on Mellon’s bridge, silence. Capt. Jose Jimenez waits intently by a radio with folded arms, knowing the next message transferred can make or break the case. Recovering contraband greatly improves the prosecution case against the suspects.
Minute 30. “Cutter Mellon, 6504. Five packages are floating at the surface. We can see them now.”
Bingo. As Mellon’s command gives a sigh of relief and a brief round of applause, the pilots are busy marking the location of the packages. They easily direct one of the boats to the area for the retrieval of nearly 700 pounds of cocaine, a load with a street value of more than $18 million.
Meanwhile, Mellon’s other boat is vectored in by the helicopter toward the panga. The boat crew roars ahead over three-to-four-foot seas at high speeds. Each wave jolts them from head to toe as if they were crash test dummies in a car with no airbags.
“The whole time, you’re trying to keep one hand on your weapon and the other on the seat in front of you,” says Petty Officer 3rd Class Jerry Brumett, a member of Mellon’s pursuit team. “It’s like riding a bull, only instead of eight seconds, it could be eight miles.”
As the inerceptor boat closes in on the go-fast, which is once again travling at high speed, the HITRON gunner fires three stitches of warning shots into the water with a machine gun to end the pursuit. The panga complies. The chase is over.
With the proper paperwork in place, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Long, a maritime enforcement specialist, leaves the small boat to secure the panga and three men on board. Then interagency communications help determine the vessel’s nationality and make arrangements under international law and treaties to authorize law enforcement teams to further investigate the situation or detain the alleged smugglers.
“The adrenaline gets us there,” says Long. “The chase is exciting, and I never realize how hard it is on my body until the next day. Each time we come out of the water going that fast, it’s like getting punched in the back. Once we stop, it’s just hot. It can be fatiguing as we wait to board a vessel to make sure we’re following the correct procedures.”
The coordination for this panga takes hours. Multiple small boat crews are rotated to prevent exhaustion and dehydration and keep watch over the suspect vessel. After sunset, Mellon receives the green light to detain all three men from the panga. The suspects will soon be turned over to case agents and will likely be processed through the U.S. legal system.
Finally, with interceptor boats and helicopter secured and a slumbering crew, Mellon steams onward toward another day, another go-fast, another pursuit.
“Some people might say this is a drop in the bucket compared the amount of narcotics that make it to the U.S., but I think it is a noble mission. I think it’s worth it,” says Sutton, who leads Mellon’s law enforcement and boarding team operations. “Every pound of narcotics we seize is one less pound back home that could make it into a family member’s hands. It could mean one less robbery, one less kidnapping, one less murder.”
Operations Officer Lt. Steven Davies agrees.
“As long as the threat of narco-terrorism lives, so will our mission. We might not catch every case that passes through these waters, but you better believe we are going to try.”