Alameda CA January 23, 2010 (seawaves.com) - A suspected cocaine smuggler died in Guatemala Tuesday following the seizure of his boat in the Eastern Pacific Ocean by the U.S. Coast Guard. The man was medevaced to Guatemala City when he sustained possible engine fragment or shrapnel injuries after shots were fired to disable the boat's engines as it fled from authorities.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, operating from a Coast Guard cutter patrolling the area, pursued the suspicious craft, signaled the operator to stop, and fired warning shots. The boat did not stop so rounds from a high powered rifle were aimed at the boat's engines to disable them.
A Coast Guard boarding team, in a pursuit boat dispatched from the cutter, discovered the injured suspect when they reached the disabled craft. The man was immediately transferred to the cutter, where a medical technician worked to stabilize his condition, then medevaced to Guatemala City by helicopter. He was transferred to an ambulance ashore in critical but stable condition but was pronounced dead at the hospital.
An investigation will be conducted to review the details of Tuesday's interdiction operation, try to determine exactly what caused the man's injuries, and ensure all appropriate procedures and safety measures were followed.
"We extend our condolences to the suspect's family," said Capt. Kevin O'Day, chief of response for the 11th Coast Guard District. "The U.S. Coast Guard and partner agencies go the extraordinary lengths to minimize the chance of injury to suspected smugglers. It is regrettable, in this case, that the smugglers did not heed our multiple orders or warnings to halt," he said. "We deeply appreciate the assistance of the Guatemalan Air Force, the Guatemalan Military Medical Center and the Centro Medico hospital for their efforts to organize the medevac of the patient."
Two other boats were stopped as part of Tuesday's counter-drug operation. One of those vessels halted after orders to stop and warning shots from the helicopter. Another boat ignored warnings and required engine-disabling gunfire to make it stop. Five suspected smugglers and bales of cocaine thought to have been thrown overboard from the three seized boats are in custody of U.S. authorities. The interdictions occurred in international waters approximately 32-miles off the west coast of Guatemala.
Injuries to smuggling boat crews in connection boat engine disabling fire from helicopters are rare. Including Tuesday's incident, U.S. Coast Guard records indicate there have been two fatalities and two serious injuries to suspects out of 176 cases where the tactic was used since it was initiated in the late 1990's.
The law enforcement phase of U. S. drug interdiction operations in the Eastern Pacific are conducted under the tactical control of the 11th Coast Guard District headquartered in Alameda, California. In 2009 some 135 tons of cocaine were intercepted in the Eastern Pacific by U.S. Coast Guard and partner agencies operating in the region.