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A New York Times Magazine investigation has revealed that the Coast Guard detained more than 700 suspected drug smugglers between September 2016 and 2017. These suspects were held at sea for weeks or months before they were charged with a crime and were denied access to lawyers and their families. Reporter Seth Freed Wessler, who wrote the story, joins Megan Thompson from Boston.
An article in this weekend's New York Times Magazine describes tough tactics being used with greater frequency by the U.S. military to stop drug trafficking around the world. 'The Coast Guard's floating Guantanamo' reports on how suspected drug smugglers are being detained at sea for weeks or even months before they are charged with a crime or appear in an American court. This happened almost 700 times between last September and this September. New York Times reporter Seth Freed Wessler wrote the story in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and he joins me now from Boston. So first Seth I wanted you to just describe to us what exactly the Coast Guard is doing. You also feature the story of a gentleman named Jhonny Arcentales – can you tell us a little bit about what he experienced?
SETH FREED WESSLER:
The U.S. Coast Guard has been deployed deep into the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes as many as 3000 miles away from the nearest U.S. port to pick up shipments of cocaine moved between South America Colombia and Ecuador and Central America. And they're picking up suspected smugglers aboard small speedboats in the ocean. I write about a number of men who were detained by the Coast Guard aboard U.S. ships in international waters and held there for weeks or months at a time and a kind of detention that's expanding rapidly in the sort of maritime war on drugs.
Talk a little bit more about the conditions that these men were held in?
They describe conditions where they were shackled – often very tightly – in tight quarters and unshackled only to be allowed to use the bathroom which often was only a plastic bucket on the deck of the ship and held day after day. In the case of Jhonny Arcentales who I write about in Ecuador, he was held with a group of other men for 70 days aboard a series of Coast Guard cutters. And he really believed that he might disappear. He had no idea where he was being taken.
He was simply being held as the Coast Guard cutters were moving around the Pacific picking up more suspect suspected smugglers and detaining them aboard the ships? So where do these people end up?
Well in years past when the Coast Guard has picked up drugs in the ocean, very often it has sent the smugglers on board those boats back to their countries. But since 2012 when the Department of Defense launched a program called Operation Martillo which really has focused on trying to interdict drugs cocaine mostly in and near the transit zones when they leave South America, the smugglers suspected smugglers have been brought back to the United States in huge numbers to face prosecution here.
Can you talk a little bit more about what the Coast Guard said to you during your reporting this story and their response?
Well again you know the Coast Guard says that it's logistically difficult to operate in the high seas of the Pacific very far away from from the United States. And what's clear is that the infrastructure to move people more quickly off of the boat is not kept up at all. Coast Guard officers I spoke to are really uncomfortable about these practices. They know and the Coast Guard says these ships are not equipped as detention centers so instead they're holding people in conditions that for the detainees are really are terrifying.
And is there any evidence that this practice is stopping the flow of drugs into the U.S.?
We can't really draw a line between what the U.S. Coast Guard is doing and drug use in the United States. Cocaine use in particular. We're really talking about cocaine that goes up and down even as the number of people being detained each year in recent years has been going up and up and up.
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