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Coast Guard Detains Hundreds of Smugglers in “Floating Guantánamos"

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Coast Guard Detains Hundreds of Smugglers in “Floating Guantánamos"


When Jhonny Arcentales, an Ecuadorian father providing for an extended family of ten, decided to make “la vuelta” — a term local fishermen use to refer to round trip smuggling cocaine from South America to Central America — he thought he knew the risks. A rickety motorboat battling the Pacific Ocean, pirates targeting smugglers, and law enforcement policing the shores all could mean his trip would be one-way.

What he didn’t anticipate was 70 plus days spent detained onboard US Coast Guard vessels.

During this time he and his companions lost 20 to 50 pounds, were shackled to ship’s decks exposed the elements for up to ten days at a time. After 77 days transferred from ship to ship, Arcentales was flown to Florida to be tried in a US court, despite the fact he was hundreds of miles from US shores at the time of his detention.

A New York Times investigation has revealed the largely unknown extent of the United States Coast Guard’s role in these arrests and subsequent detentions. Operating thousands of miles from its shore, the United States Coast Guard is combing the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean for smugglers running drugs from Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru to Central America, arresting them and detaining them onboard for durations of up to 90 days.

Historically, the United States Coast Guard waited to interdict drug smugglers until they approached the country’s territorial waters. Convictions in US courts have traditionally depended on positively confirming the drugs were bound for the US.

Stricter drug laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s, agreements with Central and South American governments, and the Coast Guard’s expanded antiterrorism mission post September 11 have pushed their role ever farther out to sea.

Operation Hammer began in 2012 under the direction of then Homeland Security Director John Kelly, now President Donald Trump’s chief of staff. “We are a nation under attack,” Mr. Kelly asserted in a lecture at George Washington University this April. “The more we push our borders out, the safer our homeland will be… that includes Coast Guard drug interdictions at sea.”

Over the past six years, the Coast Guard has arrested over 2,700 smugglers in the process of bringing tens of thousands of pounds of cocaine to Central to America. These smugglers are typically fisherman looking to cash in on the up $20,000 paid by cartels for successfully delivering their drugs to Central America countries from where they are hauled overland to drug-thirsty North American markets.

Detained by the Coast Guard in an un-flagged boat in international waters off the coast of Guatemala, Jhonny Arcentales and his companions found themselves in legal limbo and subject to the vagaries of international maritime law. Mr. Arcentales, his companions, and the twenty-odd other detainees on board were never read their Miranda rights, offered consular or legal assistance, allowed to contact their families, or even told their ultimate destination was the United States.

Experts on international maritime law debate the legality of not just extended pretrial detentions, but the act of trying these cases in US courts at all. “It would have to be measured against human rights and due-process law,” Efthymios Papastavridis, a University of Oxford maritime law scholar told the Times. “What the US does would not meet the standard.”

The Coast Guard does not seem satisfied with the current arrangement. Some officials interviewed by the Times expressed embarrassment over what one called “floating Guantánamos.” However, they contend they have limited options for addressing the conditions for detainees, or the fact that they are often held for well over the 30-day limit for filing charges.

This is because the Drug Enforcement Administration is running Operation Hammer under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Coast Guard. The DEA and domestic law enforcement agencies have exclusive authority over transferring prisoners from Coast Guard ships for detention and trial in the US.

US law enforcement officials contend that individuals arrested in the Coast Guard’s wide-ranging ocean patrols have provided vital intelligence on international drug smuggling operations. With John Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a long-time advocate for stronger drug sentencing laws, occupying prominent positions in the Trump administration, changes to the current strategy are unlikely.

Photo credit: Flickr