Three Drug Suspects Missing After Coast Guard Team Fires on Smuggling Boat

A Royal Netherlands Navy FRISC pursuit boat, the model used in Tuesday's interdiction (Netherlands MOD)
A Royal Netherlands Navy FRISC pursuit boat, the model used in Tuesday's interdiction (Dutch MOD file image)

Published Jun 6, 2024 4:24 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Coast Guard has suspended a search for three suspects who went overboard after a boarding team opened fire in self-defense.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, a Dutch naval vessel with an embarked USCG boarding team spotted a small suspect vessel at an unspecified location in the Caribbean. (It is standard practice for allied warships to carry USCG personnel for anti-narcotics boardings in the Caribbean, leveraging their maritime enforcement authority under U.S. law.) 

The boat did not stop when hailed and attempted to evade interdiction by increasing speed. It changed direction towards a Dutch pursuit boat, and the military personnel on board the pursuit boat opened fire in self-defense. The go-fast suspect vessel caught fire and sank, the Coast Guard said; the three suspects on board went over the side and were not found. No Dutch or American personnel were injured in the incident. 

Two Royal Netherlands Navy warships, two helicopters and a Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard patrol boat joined in a search of the area. On Wednesday, the team called off the SAR effort, according to Dutch authorities; the U.S. Coast Guard published its initial report of the incident on Thursday. 

“The missions our Coast Guard servicemembers and allied partners do every day to deny transnational criminal organizations access to maritime smuggling routes are inherently dangerous. The decision to suspend active search efforts is not one we take lightly, and the Coast Guard is working to investigate the incident in accordance with Coast Guard policy," said Lt. Cmdr. John Beal of USCG 7th District. 

Fatalities during Coast Guard interdiction operations are rare, and the last one occurred January 1. On New Year's Day, a Coast Guard airborne pursuit team accidentally killed a drug-running suspect during an interdiction in the Caribbean. When the suspect boat did not stop, Coast Guard District Seven gave authorization for "airborne use of force," including standard warning shots and disabling fire. When the Coast Guard boat team arrived on scene to board the suspect vessel, they found that one of the people on board had sustained a gunshot injury. The injured suspect was treated on scene and medevaced to the Dominican Republic for higher care. The Coast Guard later learned from the Dominican authorities that the patient had died of his wounds.