'Terror on the High Seas': the Coast Guard's Floating Prisons

Fishermen carrying drugs from South America detained on US vessels for days or weeks
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 28, 2017 8:37 AM CST
The 'Floating Guantanamos' the US Uses to Fight War on Drugs
In this Feb. 23, 2017, photo, a US Coast Guard law enforcement team from the USCGC Stratton boards a small fishing boat that was stopped carrying close to 700 kilos of pure cocaine in the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles south of the Guatemala-El Salvador border.   (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

Seth Freed Wessler wrote a story last week for the New York Times that he describes to PRI as one of "real terror … on the high seas": what amounts to "floating Guantanamos" in the Pacific, Coast Guard cutters sent far from US shores to bust smugglers trying to transport drugs from South America to Central America—from which point the drugs will move up to Mexico and, in all likelihood, the US. Thanks to US maritime laws, drug smuggling in international waters is seen as a crime against the US (even if there's no proof the drugs are coming here), making the detention operation legal. But notable are the conditions the smugglers are often kept in on the US vessels as they're brought here to be prosecuted: They're often chained to ships' decks and exposed to the elements, fed meager portions, and given buckets to use as toilets, which they have to clean out themselves.

Wessler explains to PRI that the Coast Guard blames these conditions, and the length of the smugglers' journeys (he says the average detainee is dragged across the ocean for 18 days), on the fact that the cutters aren't equipped as detention centers. There are other logistical challenges: As it's transporting these smugglers back to the US, the Coast Guard keeps busting others along the way. But Wessler says the cutters often dock to refuel or give the crew a break, and that the detainees could be flown to the US from those ports. He adds many of the Coast Guard officials he's spoken to are "really uncomfortable" with the detention conditions, as well as how long they've had to hold people. More of his interview with PRI here, as well as his original story in the Times—which includes one Ecuadorian man's tale of being detained for 70 days before ultimately landing in a US federal prison. (More War on Drugs stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.