Hot Success: The road to cocaine seizure on Op CARIBBE

A Royal Canadian Navy sailor and members of the United States Coast Guard currently embarked on HMCS YELLOWKNIFE for Operation CARIBBE travel on a Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat to trial communications in the Pacific Ocean during Operation CARIBBE on March 27, 2019. Photo: Captain Annie Morin XC54-2019-0003-001 ~ Un marin de la Marine royale canadienne et des membres de la garde côtière américaine, actuellement à bord du NCSM Yellowknife en vue de l’opération CARIBBE, se déplacent par embarcation pneumatique à coque rigide afin de mettre à l’essai les communications dans l’océan Pacifique durant l’Op CARIBBE, le 27 mars 2019. Photo : Capitaine Annie Morin XC54-2019-0003-001

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By Captain Annie Morin, Public Affairs Officer on Operation CARIBBE

Under the hot sun in the Eastern Pacific Ocean the air is heavy with humidity; bringing the temperature to about 45 degrees with the humidex. It’s nearly impossible to stay dry even when limiting your movements. Your clothes stick to you in all the wrong places; the nape of your neck perpetually clammy. Inevitably, sweat is just something you have to deal with.

But the bust made it worth it.

When Mother Nature graces the crew of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Yellowknife with rain, the humidity remains in full effect. Even after three or so weeks patrolling in the hot climate that is synonymous with the lush forests of Latin America, the crew of HMCS Yellowknife still remains unwaveringly focused. The task at hand is just that appealing: find and board vessels of interest carrying illicit drugs.

On the bridge of the ship, everything is dark apart from the faint lights emanating from some of the equipment. From afar, HMCS Yellowknife is nearly invisible sailing away in its search area. It’s the night of the 14th of April 2019 and the radar just picked up a signal from a nearby vessel. Could this be the vessel the crew of HMCS Yellowknife had been looking for? The helmsman pipes boarding stations signaling everyone onboard involved in the boarding to get ready; from boat lowerers to the United States Coast Guard (USCG) law enforcement detachment members who will actually perform the boarding.

The crew positions the ship favorably using the moonlight so it can remain unseen by the vessel for as long as possible. A Costa Rican flag is spotted on the vessel. Other than required communications with the operations room the bridge is quiet in anticipation, as if even breathing loudly could jeopardise the chance of catching the vessel and its cargo.

In complete darkness, members of the USCG detachment embarked on HMCS Yellowknife pulled away from the ship in Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boats (RHIB), the sound of the engines barely noticeable within seconds. The excitement is high amongst the law enforcement members; moments like this are why they’re here. Now is the time to act. In complete silence driven by the boat coxswains, the groups make their way to the unsuspecting vessel allegedly carrying drugs, guided by HMCS Yellowknife; the light of the vessel barely visible on the horizon.

As the RHIBs come to the sides of the suspected smuggling vessel, the Captain is hailed by USCG members; the suspects stand noticeably surprised by the sudden nocturnal apparition but remains calm. One by one the USCG members climb onboard the vessel having received authorization to board by authorities, disciplined and ready. Upon receiving the go-ahead, the law enforcement professionals begin the rigorous work of finding the drugs, using known information, their experience, and wits.

Slowly, the first rays of the sun began to illuminate the horizon with the determined USCG members still searching for the alleged drugs. They’ve been working all night without rest on a vessel, wallowing back and forth with the movement of the waves, and relying on the water and limited food they have brought with them for energy. A few more hours go by and the USCG members have done all they could in the present conditions to find the narcotics. Despite this, they remain convinced that the drugs are hidden, just out of reach.

The decision is finally made to bring back the tired members onboard HMCS Yellowknife. However, the search for narcotics onboard the vessel is not yet over. All the signs are there that the vessel is indeed carrying something. There is one more possibility to find the drugs though: a dockside search. The arrangements are made with the Costa Rican Coast Guard to come and take over for the responsibility of the vessel. Over the radio though, the chatter is unintelligible, except for a few members who can translate from Spanish for the rest of the crew on the bridge. The conversation is a little slower than usual because of the translation but nevertheless effective.

It would take a few hours before one of their crew could reach the vessel’s location. Although the USCG boarding party is back onboard HMCS Yellowknife, the ship is not going anywhere until the Costa Rican Coast Guard arrives. The waiting game now begins. The ship remains close to deter the vessel from sailing away. If the proximity of the Maritime Coastal Defense Vessel is not enough as a deterrent, the ship’s company members wearing helmets, bulletproof vests, and being armed surely would do it.

The only time the Diesel Alternators are brought to life is to move the ship so it remains within a certain distance from the vessel. Without constantly moving forward though, the effects of the sea on the flat-bottomed ship are accentuated, but it is not fazing the overall optimistic moral onboard HMCS Yellowknife. There is something however noticeably different on this gray April day. The normally buzzing ship is eerily quiet albeit hopeful that the Costa Rican Coast Guard will be able to find something when they perform a destructive search while in port. The search is meant to reach areas of the vessel that have been purposefully concealed by the smugglers and inaccessible otherwise.

In the late afternoon, the Costa Rican Coast Guard pulls in beside the vessel ready to take over from HMCS Yellowknife and escort the vessel into port. Members of the ship’s company watch from the bridge as the newcomers board the vessel and perform a security sweep. Then, equipped with the information the Law Enforcement collected on the vessel, the Costa Rican Coast Guard departs without delay eager to carry out their own search. At their request, HMCS Yellowknife follows the two vessels for some time and then breaks away from the group to continue patrolling.

The second waiting game begins.

Although the crew of HMCS Yellowknife has long since returned to a normal routine, the thought of the previous night’s boarding and the prospect of a drug discovery by the Costa Rican Coast Guard remains at the forefront of the ship’s company’s thoughts. Will they find anything? Then another question inevitably comes into mind for the less patient of us: when will we know?

Alas, less than 24 hours after the Costa Rican Coast Guard met with the vessel, HMCS Yellowknife is rewarded in the form of a short and precise message: “1040 kilos of cocaine and one semi-automatic rifle found on vessel”.

It was all definitely and irrevocably worth it.

Although Op CARIBBE does not have the same amount of Canadian Armed Forces personnel deployed as some of the more known missions of the past decades, its importance is nonetheless significant. Indeed, the interdiction of drug trafficking in the Eastern Pacific Ocean has direct impacts on the home front. The correlation between the seizure of illicit drugs and the positive effects is real; less drug overdoses, deaths, new users, and overall related crimes.

Crewed by 45 members, including members of the United States Coast Guard, HMCS Yellowknife is currently deployed along with HMCS Whitehorse on Operation CARIBBE, Canada’s contribution to Operation MARTILLO, a U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATFS) operation responsible for conducting interagency and international detection and monitoring operations and facilitating the interdiction of illicit trafficking.

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