US Coast Guard Operates Secret Floating Prisons In Pacific Ocean

Last week, Seth Wessler wrote a story for the New York Times, in which he described “terror on the high seas”: an expansion of the maritime war on drugs, the U.S. Coast Guard is operating a fleet of secret floating prisions in the Pacific Ocean. Coined “floating Guantanamos”, Coast Guard cutters have been deployed as far as 3,000 miles miles away from the nearest U.S. port, to international waters from Central America to South America in a bid to bust drug smugglers.

Wessler writes about a number of men who were detained by the U.S. Coast Guard and imprisoned on the cutters for weeks or months at a time. The practice of capturing smugglers and turning them back to their governments changed in 2012, when the Defense’s Southern Command, tasked with leading the war on drugs in the Americas, launched a multinational military campaign called Operation Martillo, or “hammer.” Post 2012, Coast Guard cutters cruise around the Pacific picking up smugglers who will then be admitted to U.S. courts.

According to Wessler, the U.S. Coast Guard never intended to operate floating prisions, but thanks to U.S. marintime law, drug smuggling in international waters is considered a crime against the U.S (even if there is no proof), making the possibility of floating prisions legal. Once detained, conditions for the smugglers are quite rough, often kept on US vessels for weeks or months on end– chained to anything, usually on the ships’ decks exposed to the bare elements.

The Coast Guard has a humanitarian public image, celebrated in local newspapers for rescuing pleasure boaters off Montauk or hurricane survivors in Florida. But as the lone branch of the military that serves as a law-enforcement agency, the 227-year-old service has also long been in the business of interdicting contraband, from Chinese opium smugglers to Prohibition rumrunners. For centuries, Coast Guard operations waited to arrest smugglers once they crossed into U.S. territorial waters. Then, in the 1970s, as marijuana trafficking ballooned on the route from Colombia into the Caribbean before arriving in the United States, Justice Department officials argued to Congress that current U.S. law constrained law enforcement’s ability to punish drug smugglers caught on the high seas. While the Coast Guard, then a branch of the Department of Transportation, could chase smugglers into the Caribbean, Justice Department lawyers could rarely hold smugglers caught in the legal gray zone of international waters criminally liable in U.S. courts.


Congress responded by passing a set of laws, including the 1986 Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, that defined drug smuggling in international waters as a crime against the United States, even when there was no proof that the drugs, often carried on foreign boats, were bound for the United States. The Coast Guard was conscripted as the agency empowered to seek out suspected smugglers and bring them to American courts.


In the 1990s and through the 2000s, maritime detentions averaged around 200 a year. Then in 2012, the Department of Defense’s Southern Command, tasked with leading the war on drugs in the Americas, launched a multinational military campaign called Operation Martillo, or “hammer.” The goal was to shut down smuggling routes in the waters between South and Central America, stopping large shipments of cocaine carried on speedboats thousands of miles from the United States, long before they could be broken down and carried over land into Mexico and then into the United States. In 2016, under the Southern Command’s strategy, the Coast Guard, with intermittent help from the U.S. Navy and international partners, detained 585 suspected drug smugglers, mostly in international waters. That year, 80 percent of these men were taken to the United States to face criminal charges, up from a third of detainees in 2012. In the 12 months that ended in September 2017, the Coast Guard captured more than 700 suspects and chained them aboard American ships.

Wessler details the extent of his investigation below, which provides an eye-opening view of the extent of America’s secret extraterritorial war on drugs,

Over the last year, I’ve interviewed seven former Coast Guard detainees, some of whom are still in American federal prison, and received detailed letters, some with pencil renderings of the detention ships, from a dozen others. Most of these men remain confounded by their capture by the Americans, dubious that U.S. officials had the authority to arrest them and to lock them in prison. But it is the memory of their surreal imprisonment at sea that these men say most torments them. Together with thousands of pages of court records and interviews with current and former Coast Guard officers, these detainees paint a grim picture of the conditions of their extended capture on ships deployed in the extraterritorial war on drugs.”  

PBS NewsHour interviews Seth Wessler, where he speaks about the 700 suspected drug smugglers imprisoned on Coast Guard cutters between September 2016 through 2017.


Blankone stacking12321 Thu, 11/30/2017 - 02:12 Permalink

I'm just disgusted. And had no idea this was going on.

"but thanks to U.S. marintime law"

How would the US react if another country enacted "their" marintime law and began stopping US ships/boats and jailing US citizens below deck, without legal council or representation? And did so just outside the US waters.

This concept allows the US to raid ships anywhere in the world when in international waters.

In reply to by stacking12321

not dead yet Blankone Thu, 11/30/2017 - 04:41 Permalink

This is only the tip of the iceburg of the US over extending it's authority. Awhile back the US fined a Chile airline for bribing officials in Argentina. Nothing to do with the US. The US claimed they had authority because the airlines stock was traded on the New York exchange. Then there's the law that says all foreign banks must report to the US any accounts, and their details, in their institution that are held by all Americans, even the little people, or face penalties. Rather than going through the reporting process many foreign banks won't open accounts for Americans or have closed them. Then there's the sanctions the US places on businesses, people, and countries that are totally illegal. A few years ago the US fined a French bank $6 BILLION for supposedly violating sanctions almost 10 years in the past in some African crap hole. More like retaliation against the French government, and using the bank as a proxy, for not complying with US policies.

In reply to by Blankone

Nolde Huruska not dead yet Thu, 11/30/2017 - 13:03 Permalink

This is news? This was going on in the late eighties out by French Frigate Shoals intercepting ships from Asia. And here's a twist for you. They use US Navy ships for this too. Posse Comitatus be damned.  The USCG depolys a Tactical Law Enforcement Team (TLET) on a Navy tin can and when they want to stop a ship the Captain of the ship turns control over the Officer in Charge of the TLET, they hoist the Coast Guard ensign up on the yardarm thereby creating the fiction that a Navy destroyer has been miraculously transformed into a Coast Guard cutter.Now the other side of the story is that they were not pulling ships over at random. They had good intel from assets in Thailand regarding which vessels were smuggling heroin. And when you're on a small boy 1800 miles out at sea what do you do with the bad guys? Take em for a free sea cruise.

In reply to by not dead yet

Theosebes Goodfellow stacking12321 Thu, 11/30/2017 - 07:39 Permalink

~"Kidnapping ("arresting") people in international waters is a crime, called piracy."~That is the most moronic statement. They're dope smugglers peddling poision. Do you seriously suggest that in international waters there is no rule of law? Are you proposing that we have to wait until they are 12 miles off our coast to interdict them? Tell that bullshit to the parents of an 8th grader whose just ODed on fentanyl laced pot.~"Once detained, conditions for the smugglers are quite rough, often kept on US vessels for weeks or months on end– chained to anything, usually on the ships’ decks exposed to the bare elements."~    Oh boo-fuckin-hoo! These are the bad guys, folks. They are trying to bring death to your doorstep. The Coasties know these are the bad guys, they catch them red-handed every day. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the smugglers are trying to get poison on the streets of America for the sake of a dollar. But we here grant these scum due process, and they get to stand before a judge and jury who determine their fate once convicted. It is hard to sustain the presumption of innocence when you just scuttled your home-made submarine, (full of dope), because the CG caught up with you in open waters.

In reply to by stacking12321

Ghordius Badsamm Thu, 11/30/2017 - 05:46 Permalink

+1 for the reply to "Next step, privatise them. Then sink them if need be."the counter-question is... where? not in the US. and this leads us beck to the reason why they are nicknamed "Guantanamo Ships"now, not that long ago I believed that if a US Flag "flyes over it", US laws apply therebut... Guantanamo proved my assumption wrong. unless there is in future a legal/political challenge in the US to this "gray area approach"N.B.: as far as I can see, the US is the only country that has this legal approach. sometimes summarized as "Exceptionalism" by foreign critics, while others have harsher terms

In reply to by Badsamm

SheHunter Thu, 11/30/2017 - 01:13 Permalink

well shucks.  Poor abused drug smugglers.  Maybe word will get around in the underworld of drug czars that there are past times more desirable than hiring out to slip cocaine and other heavy drugs over the high waters. 

not dead yet MaxThrust Thu, 11/30/2017 - 04:58 Permalink

It's OK for the CIA to promote crime and devastation by controlling the drug trade because they are keeping us safe and need the money to do so. When the cops steal your money and house they need to do crime to fight crime, and pay for their hooker parties and beer bashes, to "keep us safe." Even DA's and prosecuters condone the stealing of your stuff by cops for the same reason. The US, a nation of laws, has really gone in the crapper when those charged with upholding the law condone crime claiming they need it to fight crime. That's why it's impossible to get laws on the books to stop the practice.

In reply to by MaxThrust

GreatUncle not dead yet Thu, 11/30/2017 - 05:56 Permalink

The British sent criminal convicts to police the Irish who then carried out all manner of atrocities.Shows the mindset of the british hierarchy on a population, subhuman and because none of them were ever beheaded they will have the same entitled mentality.This is the same for the US, the mindset of those ruling is revealed in that which they allow.Now if they confiscated the goods, sold them and then handed all proceeds to say a charity like Oxfam ... they don't they keep it for their own bonuses.That methdology should tell you that the bankster mentality is also in their.IS NO MORE HONEST OR HONORABLE NATIONS IN THE WORLD RESORTING TO EVER BIGGER CRIMINAL ACTS TO RULE.

In reply to by not dead yet

Consuelo Thu, 11/30/2017 - 01:28 Permalink

  As others have already mentioned:$Billions of dollars flowing in must not be interrupted nor encounter any competition. Jeezus...  If the American people only knew how they've been hornswoggled all these decades. 

Zepper Thu, 11/30/2017 - 01:29 Permalink

All they have to do is stop all the cargo ships coming in from China. China is the new leader in drugs. The most potent drugs ever created, so potent that even if you touch the stuff with your finger, it will cause instant lung paralysis. All china has to do is put the shit on a warhead its a new type of WMD! In fact, Trump should lobby the world to put massive sanctions on China because they are exporting WMD drugs.

wisehiney Thu, 11/30/2017 - 01:29 Permalink

The last time I saw a couple of local young bucks who are now Coast Guard Officers.I showed fuckers that the old man can still do more push ups than both of them put together.But there were too many people around to have a good conversation.I will check on this, next time they come home.

. . . _ _ _ . . . Thu, 11/30/2017 - 02:37 Permalink

So if some countries decide to legalize some drugs or if they develop medicines which the US considers illegal and trade them amongst themselves passing through international waters to do so, the US can step in and confiscate the cargo and imprison the crew? Slippery slope - those waters are international for a reason.

just the tip . . . _ _ _ . . . Thu, 11/30/2017 - 05:32 Permalink

illicit trade is conducted by unflagged vessels.  most of the time.  your reference to international waters is abbreviated, and lacks the volumes of legal references to the identification of ships at sea.there is illicit trade via commercial shipping that enters the US legally.  and is then impounded by the port authority.for an example of the latter, i would offer american airlines.  american airlines is the single largest importer of contraband into the US.  on every flight from latin/central america there are litterally hundreds of thousands of dollars of contraband.  the most humorous occured a few months ago in the maintenance facility in tulsa.  someone down south forgot the last package and the cargo hold was closed.  so a member of the ground crew "stuck" the package between two struts on the forward landing gear.  and off she went.  as fate would have it, this particular aircraft was scheduled for a "C" inspection.  after arrival in miami, and removal of passengers and freight it was off to tulsa.  during the recieving inspection one of the ground crew, obviously uninitiated in the ways of international commerce, noticed something improper about the forward landing gear.  apparently the ground crew in miami missed one.  whoopsie.  so this guy says HEY GUYS WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?  at this point even more ground crew, equally uninitiated in the ways of international commerce, came over to the forward landing gear and said WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU SUPPOSE THIS IS?  and yes, then they did a really stupid fucking thing.  they called the cops.  yep.  they called the fucking cops.  so for a re-cap, why did the director of security for american airlines in miami, from 1995 until 2003, have a house in the neighborhood tiger woods moved into?  windemere or something like that wasn't it?

In reply to by . . . _ _ _ . . .

swmnguy just the tip Thu, 11/30/2017 - 07:01 Permalink

It gets pretty weird on the local level, too.  In Cold Spring, MN, near local drug hub St. Cloud, MN, some odd things happened a couple of years ago.  A small business received an order that was shipped on a regular wooden pallet.  They leaned the pallet up against the wall and ignored it for months.  One day later, they decided to throw it out in the alley to be taken away as garbage, and noticed a ball of packing tape inside the structure of the pallet.  A guy cut it off with his knife, and Whoah!  What looked like cocaine, or meth or heroin (undisclosed white powder) spilled out all over the place.  It was a sizeable enough quantity that you'd think somebody would have been looking for it or wondering where it (and presumably their money) had gone.Being rural rubes, they called the cops.  Lots of head-scratching.  No answers.  Some dark suspicions muttered about local ne'er do-wells.Not long after, a local cop named Tom Decker answered a call to the same building where the drugs were found.  He was with a brand-new partner.  Decker got out of the car to look around the back of the building.  As soon as he walked out of view, he was shot and killed.  His brand-new partner didn't call it in correctly.The police zeroed in on a guy who lived in an apartment upstairs from the business, in the building the murdered cop had been checking on.  They arrested him, and did the usual thing where they broadcast his name and their theory in the media to poison the well of a potential jury.  The guy worked in the bar downstairs from where he lived.  He may have been rumored to have been a drug user.  The cops, both of them, hung out in the bar.  They all knew each other "socially."But nothing added up.  The dead cop's wife had connections to everyone involved, includiing the suspect/planned patsy.  Both cops were from the local area, and it's not at all out of the question they were conduits in the local drug trade.  The suspect was at long length able to get prosecutors to drop charges, which they did begrudgingly.Then later, out of the blue, a local junkie and petty criminal suddenly "snapped," or so we're told, and confessed to killing the cop, took off, and killed himself before he could be interrogated or more importantly, get an attorney.All cases closed, of course.  Yet none of the outstanding questions answered.  Whose drugs were they in the pallet?  Why was the cop killed?  Why didn't the partner follow any procedures?  Was there more to the fact that the wife knew everyone involved?  Did all these people know each other through the local drugs trade?Ah, we'll never know.  But there's certainly no shortage of drugs that didn't originate locally flowing through that area of small towns where everybody knows everybody and has Good Ol' American Values.  If they aren't financing the drug trade with their money, they're joining the military to safeguard it that way.

In reply to by just the tip

RationalLuddite Thu, 11/30/2017 - 01:42 Permalink

You mean they are arresting RIVAL DEALERS to their various global trafficking criminal partners (e.g. Gladio b-C), as it part of the gangster deal Their hubris is beyond words. Watch out US alphabet agencies - your nemesis may be less than a dozen years away now. Your rendevuous with Entropy is going to be very, very ... thermodynamic 

any_mouse Thu, 11/30/2017 - 02:28 Permalink

Back to 1700s with prisoners chained below decks on a never ending cruise to nowhere.

Lucky for them the Coasties don't use oars.

God Bless America.