News Archives

Monday, September 13, 1999:

US Coast Guard Fires at Drug Boats

WASHINGTON ( AP ) - Coast Guard sharpshooters have been firing from helicopters to knock out the engines of cocaine-laden boats in the Caribbean, officials disclosed Monday. The tactic - one not used since the 1920s Prohibition era - has already netted three tons of cocaine.

The previously secret assaults have been used in recent weeks to stop smugglers who now use open-hull, low-profile boats called ``Super Smugglers'' or ``Go-Fasts'' that carry barrels of fuel and about a ton of cocaine each.

The use of such boats has doubled since 1996, officials say, and they now carry more than 85 percent of all maritime drug shipments.

``Operation New Frontier'' has led to the capture of 13 crew members from four boats and more than three tons of cocaine destined for the U.S. market, said Barry McCaffrey, White House drug control director.

He said it and other anti-drug operations in the past year have brought cocaine confiscation to a record 53 tons, with a street value of $3.7 billion.

``We have made the drug smugglers afraid. We will now make them disappear,'' McCaffrey said at a news conference alongside one of the specially equipped MH90 Enforcer helicopters leased by the Coast Guard. The helicopter and a sleek Coast Guard chase craft were brought to the Transportation Department aboard flatbed trucks.

Three of the four ``Super Smugglers'' stopped so far were disabled in the last month. None of the four crews fired back, Coast Guard officials said, but U.S. agents are allowed to return lethal fire if they do.

The latest tactics include machine-gun fire across boats' bows, use of a ``stingball'' that explodes into a shower of rubber pellets and a special net that entangles a boat's engines. Using a sharpshooter is the Coast Guard's last resort to stop the boats.

Sharpshooter Charlie Hopkins, nicknamed ``El Diablo'' because his .50-caliber Robar rifle bears the packing number 999, fired three shots Aug. 16 that disabled a vessel. Hopkins, 32, of Winslow, Maine, said he aims his laser targeting sight only at the speeding crafts' engines.

``We're still humanitarian. We just want to stop the flow,'' he said in an interview, noting that the each helicopter carries a life raft in case a boat is accidentally blown up or sunk.

Adm. James E. Loy, Coast Guard commandant, said there was no chance that commercial fishermen or pleasure boaters would be targeted by the sharpshooters, saying that identification and extensive warnings are required before aggressive tactics are employed.

``This special show is not going to be coming to a theater near you,'' he said in an effort to reassure private boaters.

Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who oversees the Coast Guard, said ``Operation New Frontier'' will lead to other high-tech interventions to counter drug smuggling. The Clinton administration is asking for $17.8 billion to fight illegal drugs next year.

The officials declined to provide further details of the new tactics. But a Coast Guard background briefing described the dramatic encounters and released videotape of two incidents that showed helicopters as they stopped speeding vessels.

The Coast Guard is not believed to have authorized firing from the air to disable vessels since fixed-wing aircraft were used to chase down and stop shipments of illegal alcohol in the 1920s, according to the service's historian's office.

Loy said although the new tactics were not intended to kill or injure, they do put smugglers in increased danger. ``If there's a new risk on the part of the bad guys, that's terrific,'' he said.

The ``Go-Fasts'' represent a change in strategy for drug smugglers, who have seen a halt to big cargo flights out of Colombia, McCaffrey said.

The Coast Guard's previous tactic, firing warning shots from the sea at the speedy boats, was ineffective, considering that smugglers average more than a trip a day between Colombia and Puerto Rico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic en route to the United States.

US Using Armed Choppers Against Drug Traffickers

WASHINGTON ( Reuters ) - The United States has started deploying armed helicopters to intercept traffickers running drugs across the Caribbean in high-speed boats, U.S. officials said Monday,

The secret deployment of armed aircraft by the U.S. Coast Guard over the last 10 months has resulted in the seizure of a record 53 tons of Colombian cocaine heading for U.S. cities.

Since late May, helicopters with large caliber guns manned by sharpshooters have stopped four drug-running boats carrying 650 pounds of cocaine and 2,000 pounds of marijuana.

``Let this be a warning to all drug traffickers. We will hunt you down. We will put you behind bars. We will shut you down, and your hideous trade,'' Transport Secretary Rodney Slater said in announcing the hitherto secret action.

U.S. counter-narcotics agencies estimate that 85 percent of the drugs coming into the United States across the Caribbean are transported in small hard-to-intercept speedboats.

The Coast Guard said pursuits of drug-running boats are lengthy and rarely result in arrests because smugglers jettison the evidence or escape to foreign territorial waters.

The new U.S. tactic is to use armed helicopters to either intimidate or disable boats suspected of running cocaine, heroin, marijuana and other illegal drugs to the United States.

On Aug. 16, Coast Guard helicopters intercepted a speedboat suspected of smuggling drugs about 50 miles off the coast of Jamaica.

The helicopters first dropped flash bombs and fired warning shots, then stopped the vessel by firing disabling shots into it engine, officials said at a news conference announcing the new tactic, called Operation New Frontier.

Coast Guard officials declined to say how many helicopters are being used in the anti-drug operation.