COCAINE Seized in San Diego

Monday, May 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ More than 13 tons of cocaine was found on a fishing boat in the Pacific Ocean, the largest cocaine seizure in U.S. maritime history, The Associated Press has learned.

The ship, a Belize-flagged vessel, was towed Sunday to San Diego, a law enforcement source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The ship had a crew of 10 aboard, all from Russia and Ukraine, the source said.

The crew members were expected to be arraigned early this week in U.S. District Court in San Diego on smuggling charges, the source said.

The vessel was first spotted about 1,500 miles south of San Diego by enforcement officers aboard a U.S. Navy ship. The anti-drug team was suspicious because the craft did not have operable fishing equipment and was outside normal fishing grounds, the source said.

After days of searching the vessel, authorities from the Coast Guard cutter Active eventually found the cocaine in a secret compartment underneath the fishing hold, the source said.

The ship, which carried a total of 26,800 pounds of cocaine, was believed to be headed toward Central America or Mexico where its cargo would be smuggled over land into the United States, the source said.

The previous record for a cocaine seizure at sea was 24,000 pounds from a ship called the Nataly I in 1995.

Cocaine seizures in the eastern Pacific Ocean have become increasingly common in recent years as smugglers seek to evade a law enforcement in the Caribbean by taking advantage of the eastern Pacific's vast, open area.

In February, the Coast Guard seized a 17,600-pound shipment of cocaine found on a rusty fishing boat off Mexico. The cocaine in that seizure also was hidden in a secret compartment, buried under ice and fresh fish.