The U.S. Coast Guard (UCG) has seized more cocaine off Latin America's Pacific coast over 10 months than in the past three years combined.
Adm. Paul Zukunft, speaking Monday in San Diego where the drugs were being taken off a Coast Guard vessel, said 119,000 pounds of cocaine were seized over the past 10 months.
"This is a historic day in San Diego. It's been a common occurrence. We've had significant offloads in the last several months," Adm. Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the Coast Guard, said at the news conference. "Today, you will see an offload of 32 metric tons of pure uncut cocaine. The largest drug offload in US history."
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According to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates, that amounts to approximately 33 million lones of cocaine, or 336 million hits of crack.
The drugs were seized in 23 separate interdictions by the UCG, including the Cutter Stratton and Coast Guard law enforcement teams operating near Central and South America. He 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.
Zukunft said the seizure also helps bring some regional stability in Guatamal, Honduras and El Salvador, which have some of the higest homicide rates in the world.
“This is about more than just trying to keep drugs off U.S. streets,” said Zukunft in a statement. “The cultivation, trafficking and distribution of narcotics fuels violence and instability throughout the Western Hemisphere, leaving a path of destruction directly to the door step of the U.S. We must continue to make progress in our effort to combat transnational organized crime networks to ensure safety and security in our hemisphere.”
Officials said the drugs belonged to several cartels operating in the region, though they could not name specifics.
The suspected smugglers were apprehended and will be prosecuted in federal courts across the nation.
Traffickers have been increasingly turning to the high seas to get their loads to U.S. markets, and skirt the tightened security on land at the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities say.
The Coast Guard is the only U.S. military branch able to make drug arrests hundreds of miles offshore.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.