PANAMA CITY — In the war on drugs, some say the front line is blurred across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
On board a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the war is waged over sea involving crews from New England patrolling hundreds of miles of the new wild west. Patrol ships watch and wait for smugglers making their way from Central America to the United States.
We spent 10 days on board a vessel patrolling the ocean after more than a year of planning.
This is the story of the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard drug units.
Getting there to see the battle firsthand is no easy task. We flew from Massachusetts to San Jose, Costa Rica, where a tropical storm kept us on the ground.
But the next day, we boarded a plane to continue flying farther south into Central America through pounding rain and dense fog to touch down in Panama.
From the port of Panama City, we met the Coast Guard crews from Boston who’ve been involved in seizing drugs.
Three flights, two days and thousands of miles later, our odyssey in the Pacific began.
Leaving the panama canal, the mission is clear.
We head straight toward the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a hunt for drug smugglers connected to the major cartels.
The hot spot for drugs a few years ago was the Caribbean sea and runners went in through Florida.
But it has since shifted to the Pacific.
For nearly 24-hours, our Coast Guard ship, which first hit the water in 1966, cuts through the water at full speed.
On board, we first met with the crew about to learn about where they'll go and what they hope to find while we're with them for the next 10-days.
Our ship, The Active, charted a course that took us out of Panama and into the gulf. From there we worked our way up Central America through the Gulf of Tehuantepec to the Port of Huatulco, staying 100-400 miles off shore.
The captain of the ship, commander Chris German, is eager to find something because the supply is there.
“Oh it’s ridiculous; typically anywhere from 750 to 4,000 Ks is what we're looking for,” German said.
That's in the ballpark of a couple tons that he expects to find per boat, per bust.
The U.S. Coast Guard is able to patrol here in international waters because of agreements between the U.S. and Central American countries.
A large part of the mission is classified.
The tools onboard alone like the Mk 38 Mod 1.25 caliber machine gun mounted to the front of the ship show they mean business and that one wrong move on the mission could end with someone being killed.%
“There is some risk involved,” notes Commander German. “We can use warning shots or disabling fire from small boats or the helicopter to disable the engines. And anytime you're putting lead down a barrel there's some risk.”
It’s a 24-hour watch with military planes flying above and the Active pushing full steam ahead.
At night, all of the ship's lights go dark on the inside and outside, only low, red lights illuminate to keep the ship's cover from any smugglers who might see the Coast Guard on the horizon.
If there’s a sighting, a smaller boat is lowered to the side and ready to launch.
“A lot of what we try to do is with timing,” explains Lt. Michael Mastrianni. “So let's say we have someone we want to chase who we've spotted with an aircraft that's spotted 100-200 miles away. We have to time that with our on board law enforcement teams at the right time.”
It's almost a game of who finds who first. But with serious consequences.
At times, they bring in an armed helicopter to help chase down the smugglers.
While our cameras were rolling on the Active, they showed us the one and a half tons of pure cocaine they seized in the Pacific, which has a street value of $150 million.
It’s a drop in the bucket, but a huge dent in the wallets of drug cartels trying to get their money maker on the streets of the U.S.
“We're trying our damnedest to stop as much as we can from coming up,” said Commander German.
And that’s exactly what happens when a smuggling vessel is spotted.
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