A Coast Guard boarding of a suspicious vessel off the coast of Panama led to a record seizure of cocaine — nearly 43,000 pounds of the drug hidden in two containers onboard the vessel Gatun.
The Gatun was initially spotted by a Coast Guard patrol aircraft about 20 miles southwest of Isla de Coiba, Panama, on Saturday. After obtaining permission from the government of Panama, a Coast Guard boarding team searched the Gatun on Sunday and discovered the drug cache.
Sources say the colossal shipment of cocaine was loaded aboard the vessel in Colombia and heading for Mexico, where a cartel was waiting to funnel the drugs into the United States, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr.
The 14 crewmembers, Panamanian and Mexican nationals, were arrested and are being transferred to Tampa, Fla., and Panama, where they will be prosecuted.
The seizure is part of an ongoing multi-agency operation known as "Panama Express," according to a Homeland Security official who requested anonymity because the official announcement had not yet been made.
"This record-breaking seizure denied the Mexican drug lords $300 million in drug revenue," said DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy. "This lost drug revenue, combined with last week's unrelated record-breaking $205 million cash seizure by the Government of Mexico working in partnership with DEA, dealt Mexican traffickers a one-two punch: they're down more than half a billion dollars in blood money in just 48 hours."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, in a statement, commended the government of Panama for its cooperation.
"Because of the combined efforts of these federal and international partners, millions of dollars in illegal drugs did not make their way into our homeland and criminal groups were not able to reap the huge profits," he added.
This latest victory in the war on drugs is good news, adds CBS News national correspondent Byron Pitts, but seizing more than 20 tons of cocaine barely scratches the surface of America's drug problem.
An estimated 20 million Americans still use illegal drugs. Three million of them use cocaine.
Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, said his agency's "hardworking crews overcame significant challenges in maintaining a 40-year-old deepwater cutter to prosecute this mission far from U.S. shores."
In recent months, the Coast Guard has acknowledged that it has had to contend with design flaws in some of its ships.
The seizure comes at a time the U.S. military has cutback its drug interdiction patrols and surveillance in the Caribbean to concentrate on war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, adds Orr.