A year after the Coast Guard made a record number of maritime drug interdictions and sent a number of drug smugglers to the United States to stand for a trial, they are considering the possibility of investing in a platform that would hold detainees until they can be transported to the mainland.
Last November, the New York Times published an investigative story about the suspected smugglers held aboard the Coast Guard vessels, were sometimes detained for weeks or months in a row.
It quotes, a former Coast Guard attorney, who called the ships “floating Guantanamos”, which has conditions that are often cramped and sometimes frigid aboard the service’s cutters. The commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Paul Zukunft, has little sympathy to spare for these detainees.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that these individuals who were detained, they’re peddling poison. They are responsible for 64,000 deaths in the U.S.,” Zukunft told Military.com during an exclusive interview in December. “These aren’t just down-on-their-luck fishermen; they have a choice. You can either fish, or you can be a criminal.”
The Hamilton class of high-endurance cutters has been in service since 1965, and still has four ships in active service.
“Go below deck and look at where my crew is berthing,” Zukunft said. “The living conditions in any prison system in the United States [are] better than the berthing areas in my 52-year-old ships. We are operating out of prisons.”
Why migrate detainees?
While detainees were in the open air above deck, Zukunft said temperate climates in and around the U.S. Southern Command area of operations mitigate some of the hardship of exposure to the elements.
But while Zukunft said he isn’t too concerned about the conditions these suspected smugglers have to contend with, he has other reasons for wanting to get out of the floating jail business.
“We’re spending about a third of our ship time right now moving these detainees from one ship to another to provide them the best creature comforts at sea until we can land them in Panama, which is the only country right now that will accept detainees for further transport back to the United States,” he said.
There’s just one other option available to Coast Guard cutters, to transit them through the Panama Canal and reach Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Civil jail ship:
In light of these challenging logistics, which contribute to the length of time detainees can spend on a Coast Guard vessel, Zukunft said the service is exploring the possibility of leasing a dedicated commercial vessel that would do nothing but hold suspects until they can be transferred to the United States.
The ship might actually be leased through the Department of Defense or SouthCom. It might be something like a commercial offshore supply vessel — a platform abundantly available given limited offshore drilling activity.
Zukunft said it would be a civilian ship staffed with Coast Guard law enforcement augmentees to supervise the detained population.
Though not the primary goal, he added that one outcome of acquiring such a vessel might be improved conditions for prisoners.
“That might have better accommodations than we have on ships with flight decks and helicopter hangars to at least get people out of the elements,” Zukunft said.
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