Suspected Drug Smugglers Held On Coast Guard's 'Boat Prisons'

By Victoria Kim 11/30/17

The US Coast Guard sometimes detains suspected drug smugglers for weeks or even months at a time on their floating prisons.

Coast Guard boat out at sea.

Suspected drug smugglers are being held on Coast Guard cutters that double as “floating Guantanamos”—they spend days, sometimes months, in shackles, with little food or basic accommodations. 

The New York Times interviewed seven former detainees who spent time in these “boat prisons,” as one Coast Guard officer said. 

The average time for maritime detainment has increased from five days in 1985 to 18 days today. However, one detainee, Jhonny Arcentales, spent more than two months aboard a Coast Guard cutter, shackled beside about 20 other prisoners.

The 40-year-old fisherman from Ecuador was desperate to make money to support his wife and children, a household of 10. He was offered more than $20,000 to move 440 kilos of cocaine. Instead, he’d end up on a Coast Guard vessel alongside other detainees from Guatemala and Colombia. 

The men were not able to call their families, or ask for a lawyer. After more than two months incarcerated at sea, Arcentales had lost 20 pounds. His ordeal was far from over—next, he and his fellow prisoners were shipped to the United States to face drug charges.

Arcentales accepted a plea agreement. Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington acknowledged that poor men like Arcentales have little information to offer about drug trafficking networks, being low-level, disposable grunts-for-hire. “They are just trying to do it to make some money for their family,” she said. Nevertheless, Arcentales was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

The Times reports that over the last six years, more than 2,700 men have been “taken from boats suspected of smuggling Colombian cocaine to Central America, to be carried around the ocean for weeks or months as the American ships continue their patrols.”

The Coast Guard travels thousands of miles from the U.S. coastline to pursue drug smugglers. “For centuries, Coast Guard operations waited to arrest smugglers once they crossed into U.S. territorial waters,” writes investigative journalist Seth Freed Wessler for the Times.

But the limits of the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction have expanded since then. Congress passed a set of laws during the 1970s and 1980s 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.”

For the first time, international waters were fair game. In addition, U.S. law enforcement have secured “some 40 agreements” with other countries that allow them to board foreign vessels.

As the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction expanded, so did the number of detainees they rounded up every year. During the 1990s-2000s, an average of 200 suspects were detained each year. In 2016, that number climbed to 585 detainees. By September 2017, the Coast Guard had incarcerated more than 700 suspects since the same time last year.

The detainees' testimony shows a clear lack of regard for basic human rights—even for suspected drug smugglers.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr