Teamwork – The key to success on Operation CARIBBE

A small speed boat approaches a slightly larger boat in the ocean
A Member of the Royal Canadian Navy and members of the embarked United States Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment conduct a “Right of Approach” investigation to determine a vessel's origin as part of Operation CARIBBE, March 19, 2018. (Photo: MARPAC Imaging Services)

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By Lieutenant (Navy) Paul Pendergast, Operation CARIBBE Public Affairs Officer

Just a few days after arriving at their patrol area in international waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean off the coast of Central America, HMCS Whitehorse’s Operations Room was already monitoring the progress of several suspicious “targets of interest.”

Information about suspected smuggling vessels comes from a variety of sources, including law enforcement agencies such as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), surveillance by Maritime Patrol Aircraft, and intelligence from partner nations. The information is analyzed and collated through Joint Inter-Agency Task Force-South (JIATF-S) in Key West, Florida, and passed on to surface ships on patrol such as Whitehorse.

“A variety of factors can make a vessel appear suspicious,” said the United States Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) Chief Petty Officer attached to Whitehorse for the duration of Operation CARIBBE.

“They can be a traditional South and Central American 25-35 foot wooden or fibreglass boat called a panga, but the cartels have also used semi-submersibles, larger fishing boats, and even freighters,” said the Chief.

Based on the last known location of a suspected smuggling vessel, Whitehorse’s Captain and Operations Officer, working with the Officer in Charge of the LEDET, estimate the target’s likely course and speed, and plot a course to intercept. With close coordination between all the agencies, Whitehorse will come within radar and visual range. Then the LEDET goes into action. Whitehorse sends its Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) with members of the LEDET over to the suspect vessel for a closer look.

The LEDET conducts their law enforcement activities under a variety of U.S. and international laws and bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements with South American and Central American partner nations. Under international law, any nation’s warships can approach any vessel on the high seas to determine its flag state. While investigating the country of origin, discrepancies may be detected which require further investigation.

Authorization to board and inspect the vessel is coordinated with partner nations as necessary and granted by U.S. Coast Guard’s 11th District headquarters.

If the LEDET finds evidence of hidden compartments, then authority is coordinated and obtained to conduct a thorough search of the vessel. If contraband is discovered, either in hidden compartments or elsewhere, it is tested onboard Whitehorse to determine if it is cocaine, or any other banned substance. The contraband is confiscated and the panga crew are detained until they can be turned over to the U.S. Dept. of Justice or officials from partner nations.

After an interdiction, the LEDET prepares the evidence and case package for prosecution by U.S. or partner nation authorities. “It is important to provide solid evidence packages, for successful prosecutions in court,” said the LEDET Chief.

After a successful interdiction, Whitehorse moves on to the next target of interest. For Lieutenant-Commander Collin Forsberg, the Commanding Officer of HMCS Whitehorse, coordination with the LEDET is where the rubber meets the road. “Our job is to get them into position to intercept the traffickers, but the LEDET has the training, equipment, and most importantly, the authority to stop these drugs before they reach the streets of the United States and Canada,” said Lieutenant-Commander Forsberg.

Image gallery

  • A group of Americans in tan uniforms climb down a rope ladder from a ship into a speed boat
  • A large net carries packages of cocaine from a speedboat into a ship
  • There are rows of rectangular tan packages containing cocaine
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