USCG Cutter Tampa Seizes $150 Million in Cocaine

The crew of the Tampa intercepts a low-profile smuggling boat, February 2019 (file image courtesy USCG)

Published Feb 17, 2020 6:56 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Sunday, the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Tampa returned to their homeport in Portsmouth, Virginia after an 80-day counter-drug patrol in the Eastern Pacific. During the patrol, the Tampa's crew intercepted four vessels carrying a total of over 9,200 pounds of cocaine - an amount worth an estimated $154 million dollars. The crew of the cutter also detained 12 suspected drug smugglers, boarded three more vessels and responded to one search and rescue case.

The cutter began the patrol by embarking an armed helicopter crew from the Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) in Mayport, Florida. HITRON aircrews pursue suspect go-fast boats in advance of Coast Guard boarding teams, and they have the ability to disable the target's outboard engines using sniper fire if required. 

“I am humbled and very proud of what our crew has accomplished during this patrol,” said Cmdr. Michael Cilenti, commanding officer of the Tampa. “Just keeping our 36-year old ship operating is a full time job, and our crew not only did that, but safely and professionally executed our counter-drug mission. Saving lives by keeping drugs off our streets and helping eliminate drug cartels’ destabilizing influence of our Central and South American neighbors is something we all care very deeply about."

The U.S. Coast Guard maintains an active presence in the busy drug transit zones of the Eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Basin. During at-sea intercepts in international waters, a suspect vessel is generally located and tracked by allied, military or law enforcement personnel. The interdictions, including the actual boarding, are led and conducted by U.S. Coast Guardsmen. 

The effort has yielded impressive results. In FY2017, the Coast Guard seized about 445,000 pounds of cocaine worth an estimated $6 billion, compared with about 36,000 pounds seized on shore by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.