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U.S. Captures Supply Ship for Drug Boats

Narcotics: Officials say the vessel was trying to refuel a speedboat carrying $530 million in cocaine.


SAN DIEGO — For the first time since the United States stepped up drug interdiction efforts on the high seas, the Navy and Coast Guard have succeeded in seizing one of the supply ships that play a crucial role in helping drug-laden speedboats make the long voyage from Colombia to Mexico, officials said Tuesday.

Military and law enforcement officials lauded the seizure of the leaky, rusting fishing trawler Gran Tauro as a major victory in the fight to close off the eastern Pacific route to drug-runners.

The 72-foot trawler was seized 240 miles west of Panama after it was spotted attempting to refuel a "go-fast" boat that was carrying 5,300 pounds of cocaine worth as much as $530 million, officials said.

"The message is clear: These resupply vessels should no longer feel immune now that one has been busted," said Coast Guard Capt. Chip Sharpe, chief of the Pacific Area operational forces. "We just changed the rules of the game."

Assistant U.S. Atty. Gonzalo Curiel, chief of the narcotics enforcement division in the San Diego office, said resupply ships "are the Achilles' heel of the go-fasts. We're going to do everything we can to take them out of the equation."

Experts say traffickers have been using the vast eastern Pacific more frequently because interdiction efforts in the more easily patrolled Caribbean have made the journey there riskier.

And traffickers are becoming more brazen.

Drug police recently reported finding a submarine under construction in the Andes to be used to ship up to 11 tons of drugs.

Under a joint get-tough policy begun last year, U.S. forces have chased and seized a number of the go-fast boats carrying thousands of pounds of drugs.

But until now, the Coast Guard and Navy have been unable to catch a resupply boat in the act of providing fuel and other necessary goods to a drug boat.

The go-fast boats can carry tons of drugs and skim the waves at up to 70 mph. But they have limited range and are thought to need refueling two to five times while making the journey from Colombia to the Mexican coast.

Officials believe that the go-fasts transfer their drug loads off the Mexican coast to boats controlled by the Mexican drug cartels. Those boats then take the loads ashore for overland shipment to the U.S.

Radar operators on the Navy frigate Dewert, deployed as part of a Navy-Coast Guard anti-drug mission, spotted the Gran Tauro on Sept. 11 as it approached a suspected go-fast boat.

A Navy helicopter was used to get a close-up view of the supply ship and the go-fast, officials said.

The Navy patrol ship Firebolt then began trailing the go-fast, which sped off and began tossing overboard dozens of bundles that later proved to be cocaine.

The go-fast, which had collided with the Gran Tauro in its attempt to escape, capsized and sank.

The five men aboard the go-fast were rescued. They and seven people on the supply ship were arrested by an elite group of well-armed Coast Guard personnel, officials said. A teenager on the supply ship was also taken into custody but not charged.

None of the 13 resisted or were armed, officials said.

The supply ship had 1,000 gallons of gasoline aboard even though it was powered by a diesel engine, officials said. For ships in port, Colombian law has recently been toughened to allow the arrest of a captain whose ship is found to have a suspiciously large amount of gasoline aboard.

Authorities had identified the seized trawler eight days before, on Sept. 3, when Coast Guard personnel boarded it and found the extra gas. The Colombian government ordered the vessel back to port.

Instead, it continued northward to the apparent rendezvous spot, officials said.

The Gran Tauro, the contraband drugs and the 13 people, all believed to be Colombians, were brought to San Diego on Tuesday. The 12 adults have been charged with drug smuggling and are being held without bail.

The Coast Guard has established squads in Miami, Portsmouth, Va., and San Diego to chase, disable and board go-fasts and other drug boats.

The Coast Guard personnel deploy aboard Coast Guard cutters on some missions and aboard Navy ships on others. On the mission that targeted the Gran Tauro, the Coast Guard teams were aboard the Dewert and the Navy's guided missile cruiser Valley Forge. The Navy ships provide state-of-the-art radar and other detection equipment as well as firepower, if needed, although drug traffickers rarely attempt to fight back.

The supply ships have proved difficult to combat because, under international law, they must be caught in the act of assisting a drug boat.

Sharpe predicted that more supply ships will be seized. "This was not a fluke," he said. "We know where they are, and we're aggressively chasing them. Without them, the go-fasts are out of gas."


Drug Vessel

A vessel seized west of Panama was used by drug smugglers to refuel boats carrying cocaine from Colombia to Mexico, authorities say.

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