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US Coast Guard Operates Secret Floating Prisons In Pacific Ocean

Last week, Seth Wessler wrote a story for the New York Times, in which he described “terror on the high seas”: an expansion of the maritime war on drugs, the U.S. Coast Guard is operating a fleet of secret floating prisions in the Pacific Ocean. Coined “floating Guantanamos”, Coast Guard cutters have been deployed as far as 3,000 miles miles away from the nearest U.S. port, to international waters from Central America to South America in a bid to bust drug smugglers.

Wessler writes about a number of men who were detained by the U.S. Coast Guard and imprisoned on the cutters for weeks or months at a time. The practice of capturing smugglers and turning them back to their governments changed in 2012, when the Defense’s Southern Command, tasked with leading the war on drugs in the Americas, launched a multinational military campaign called Operation Martillo, or “hammer.” Post 2012, Coast Guard cutters cruise around the Pacific picking up smugglers who will then be admitted to U.S. courts.

According to Wessler, the U.S. Coast Guard never intended to operate floating prisions, but thanks to U.S. marintime law, drug smuggling in international waters is considered a crime against the U.S (even if there is no proof), making the possibility of floating prisions legal. Once detained, conditions for the smugglers are quite rough, often kept on US vessels for weeks or months on end– chained to anything, usually on the ships’ decks exposed to the bare elements.

The Coast Guard has a humanitarian public image, celebrated in local newspapers for rescuing pleasure boaters off Montauk or hurricane survivors in Florida. But as the lone branch of the military that serves as a law-enforcement agency, the 227-year-old service has also long been in the business of interdicting contraband, from Chinese opium smugglers to Prohibition rumrunners. For centuries, Coast Guard operations waited to arrest smugglers once they crossed into U.S. territorial waters. Then, in the 1970s, as marijuana trafficking ballooned on the route from Colombia into the Caribbean before arriving in the United States, Justice Department officials argued to Congress that current U.S. law constrained law enforcement’s ability to punish drug smugglers caught on the high seas. While the Coast Guard, then a branch of the Department of Transportation, could chase smugglers into the Caribbean, Justice Department lawyers could rarely hold smugglers caught in the legal gray zone of international waters criminally liable in U.S. courts.


Congress responded by passing a set of laws, including the 1986 Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, that defined drug smuggling in international waters as a crime against the United States, even when there was no proof that the drugs, often carried on foreign boats, were bound for the United States. The Coast Guard was conscripted as the agency empowered to seek out suspected smugglers and bring them to American courts.


In the 1990s and through the 2000s, maritime detentions averaged around 200 a year. Then in 2012, the Department of Defense’s Southern Command, tasked with leading the war on drugs in the Americas, launched a multinational military campaign called Operation Martillo, or “hammer.” The goal was to shut down smuggling routes in the waters between South and Central America, stopping large shipments of cocaine carried on speedboats thousands of miles from the United States, long before they could be broken down and carried over land into Mexico and then into the United States. In 2016, under the Southern Command’s strategy, the Coast Guard, with intermittent help from the U.S. Navy and international partners, detained 585 suspected drug smugglers, mostly in international waters. That year, 80 percent of these men were taken to the United States to face criminal charges, up from a third of detainees in 2012. In the 12 months that ended in September 2017, the Coast Guard captured more than 700 suspects and chained them aboard American ships.

Wessler details the extent of his investigation below, which provides an eye-opening view of the extent of America’s secret extraterritorial war on drugs,

Over the last year, I’ve interviewed seven former Coast Guard detainees, some of whom are still in American federal prison, and received detailed letters, some with pencil renderings of the detention ships, from a dozen others. Most of these men remain confounded by their capture by the Americans, dubious that U.S. officials had the authority to arrest them and to lock them in prison. But it is the memory of their surreal imprisonment at sea that these men say most torments them. Together with thousands of pages of court records and interviews with current and former Coast Guard officers, these detainees paint a grim picture of the conditions of their extended capture on ships deployed in the extraterritorial war on drugs.”  

PBS NewsHour interviews Seth Wessler, where he speaks about the 700 suspected drug smugglers imprisoned on Coast Guard cutters between September 2016 through 2017.