The US Coast Guard is operating floating prisons in the Pacific Ocean, outside US legal protections

If you’ve followed the War on Terror at all, you’re almost certainly familiar with the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — a US prison that exists outside the realm of the US justice system.

Now, it turns out, there’s a secret US detention system in the War on Drugs, too — and this one is aboard US Coast Guard cutters sailing in the Pacific Ocean.

In an effort to staunch the flow of cocaine and other hard drugs from South America to Central America and points north, Coast Guard cutters have been deployed farther and farther from the shore in the Pacific Ocean. When these cutters capture a boat carrying drugs, the smugglers are brought onto the ships and kept shackled to the deck, sometimes outside in the elements, until the Coast Guard makes arrangements for them to be transported back to the US for trial.

But this isn’t a wait of just a few hours or days. Often, these waits can last weeks or months, according to new reporting from The New York Times. Coast Guard officials say they can do this because the drug smugglers aren’t under arrest until they reach US shores, but some of the worst cases are drawing criticism even from Coast Guard officials.

Seth Freed Wessler reported this story for The Times. He says a combination of US agreements with Latin American countries and the US Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act allows the US to take this action. Wessler spoke with The World’s Carol Hills about his reporting and these “floating Guantánamos” on the Pacific Ocean.

The Coast Guard usually has a reputation for being the good guys out there — rescuing people, apprehending bad guys. We’ve done stories about that. I take it it’s a little bit more complicated?

It is. The Coast Guard has a broad mission. It does search and rescue, enforces fisheries laws. It enforces drug laws on the oceans and, what few people know, is that the US Coast Guard has actually been deployed in recent years deep into the Pacific Ocean to interdict drug smugglers moving between South America — Colombia, Ecuador — and Central America, where the drugs — often cocaine — are dropped off and then often moved up through Mexico. These Coast Guard ships are deployed deep into the Pacific —sometimes thousands of miles from the nearest US port, where they’re detaining suspected smugglers and holding them aboard these Coast Guard cutters. What I found in my reporting is that detainees, men who are moving cocaine in the Pacific Ocean.

You write about some Ecuadorians who are out there transporting drugs and they end up shackled for many, many days on a Coast Guard boat. Give us the quick thumbnail sketch of this one guy, in particular, Jhonny Arcentales, and how he ended up there?

He is a fisherman from a coastal town in Ecuador and was having a particularly, economically, rough year and made a decision to take a job smuggling cocaine off of the coast of Ecuador. He really didn’t know all that much about what he was doing.

As he was moving this cocaine on a boat with three other men, another Ecuadorian man and a Colombian man, they were approaching Central America, approaching Guatemala and the US Navy and Coast Guard intercepted that boat and pulled these men off. For the next 70 days, Mr. Arcentales and the other man he was detained with were held — always chained by their ankle to the deck of a ship or to a cable running along one of these large Coast Guard or Navy ships — for 70 days. He was moved from ship to ship as these Coast Guard cutters went about their patrols, picking up more cocaine in the Pacific Ocean.


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