U.S. COAST GUARD
The crew of a suspected drug trafficking semi-submersible vessel prepares to abandon their boat before being intercepted and detained by the Coast Guard approximately 150 miles northwest of the Colombia-Ecuador border Jan. 8. A
dozen suspected drug smugglers were apprehended in the Eastern Pacific Ocean following the interception of three
semi-submersible vessels within nine days.
The new law, S.3598, criminalizes “knowingly operating, attempting or conspiring to operate, or embarking in
any submersible or semi-submersible vessel that is without nationality in, through, or from waters beyond the
outer limit of the territorial sea of a single country or a
lateral limit of that country’s territorial sea with an adjacent country, with the intent to avoid detection.”
It defines a semi-submersible as “any manned or
unmanned watercraft constructed or adapted to operate with most of its hull and bulk under the surface of
The legislation was discussed for two years, but it took
less than one month to pass in both the House of
Representatives and the Senate last fall. Allen said it was
one of the better exercises of good government he has seen
in his nearly 40 years in the service at the symposium.
“Convictions based on this new law, even in cases
where [the service] recovered no cocaine, should convince
drug trafficking organizations that there is no benefit to
the use of these very dangerous vessels,” Brown said.
Suspects captured by the Coast Guard are detained
at sea until they are brought ashore and arrested by U.S.
agents of the Tampa, Fla.-based Operation Panama
Express (OPE) task force. The counterdrug task force is
staffed by agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency, FBI,
Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Coast
Guard Investigative Service.
OPE then will conduct an investigation. Once concluded, material — boarding videos, background of suspects
and any documents related to the arrest — are given to the
U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution. Sentences are either
handed down by a judge — if the suspect pleads guilty —
or a jury if the case goes to trial. Sentences are served at a
variety of federal prisons throughout the country.
“There are some factors that can increase penalties,
including previous criminal history, use or presence of
a weapon, resisting the boarding team, giving false
information and so on,” Brown said.
Eight suspects, all from Colombia, who were arrested in separate incidents Jan. 7 and 8 were charged in
the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of
Florida’s Tampa Division.
On Jan. 7, Miguel Otero Estupinan, Carlos Andres
Mina Meneses, Victor Rodriguez Renegifo and Jhon Jairo