The U.S. Coast Guard has seized a smuggling ship carrying more than 12 tons of California-bound cocaine off the coast of Peru, the largest seizure of cocaine on the high seas in the history of U.S. law enforcement, federal officials said Friday.
The smuggling vessel was towed into San Diego on Thursday after being intercepted three weeks ago. The operation remained a secret until Friday. Operating under maritime law that permits drug interdiction in international waters, a U.S. Coast Guard boarding team from a Navy cruiser found the cocaine - which has an estimated street value of $143 million - hidden in two secret compartments in a waste oil tank, authorities said.
“This is an extraordinary situation,” said U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin, who convened a waterfront news conference in front of the vessel, the Nataly I. “There have been maritime seizures before, but this was one is enormous.”
The 10-man Colombian crew of the Panamanian-registered fishing ship was arraigned on drug trafficking charges in San Diego federal court Friday.
Investigators suspect that the Na taly I was linked to the Cali cartel of Colombia, according to federal law enforcement sources. The historic seizure could represent another blow to the increasingly battered Cali organization at a difficult moment. The cartel, which authorities say controls most of the world’s cocaine market, has been hit by arrests of top leaders during the past two months and an investigation of drug corruption that has reached all the way up to the Colombian president.