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Cocaine Seizures Off Latin America’s Pacific Coast Soar

Armed crew members of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Stratton keep watch as more than 66,000 pounds of cocaine worth $1.01 billion wholesale that was seized in the Eastern Pacific Ocean is unloaded upon arrival in San Diego, California August 10, 2015. MIKE BLAKE / Reuters

The U.S Coast Guard has seized more cocaine off Latin America’s Pacific coast over the past 10 months than in the past three years combined, according to the federal government.

The agency and its partners have seized 119,000 pounds of cocaine worth more than $1.8 billion so far this year. While at sea, the Stratton, one of the U.S. Coast Guard’s fleet of new national security cutters, seized more than 66,500 pounds of cocaine worth more than $1 billion. According to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates, that amounts to approximately 33 million lines of cocaine, or 336 million hits of crack.

"Today, you will see an offload of 32 metric tons of pure uncut cocaine, the largest drug offloads in United States history," Adm. Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the Coast Guard, said in a statement issued Monday.

“This is about more than just trying to keep drugs off U.S. streets,” said Zukunft. “We must continue to make progress in our effort to combat transnational organized crime networks to ensure safety and security in our hemisphere.”

Zukunft said his military branch now has a greater presence on the high seas after having to pull back its boats two years ago to meet automatic federal budget reductions. The seizures are seen as a help in bringing regional stability in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which have some of the highest homicide rates in the world, he said.

The seizures have included confronting smugglers using low-tech submersible vessels.

Image: US-CRIME-DRUGS-PACIFIC
In this image obtained from the US Coast Guard on August 6, 2015, crew from the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton intercept a self-Propelled Semi Submersible in the Eastern Pacific, on July 18, 2015. LANOLA STONE / AFP - Getty Images

Officials said the drugs belonged to several cartels operating in the region. The suspended smugglers were apprehended and will be prosecuted in federal courts across the nation.

“By every measure, this four-month voyage off the west coast of North and Central America was a huge success,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson said in a statement.

“Every day, the U.S. Coast Guard performs missions vital to our homeland security, maritime security and public safety. I am especially proud of the Stratton and crew, which I came to know when I visited Alameda (California) just before her departure in April,” Johnson said.

The Stratton was christened by First Lady Michelle Obama in March 2012 and named in honor of Dorothy Constance Stratton, the first female commissioned officer in U.S. Coast Guard history.

The Coast Guard is the only U.S. military branch able to make drug arrests hundreds of miles offshore. Last week, the agency celebrated its 25th anniversary. It operates under the Department of Homeland Security.

"Every one of these bricks of cocaine is destined for the United States," Zukunft said, adding that about 900,000 pounds of cocaine is consumed in the United States each year.