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ACLU Sues Coast Guard Over Fishermen Held at Sea

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“I was going to do something to help myself and help my family,” Williams says in the ACLU video. “And it wasn’t nothing illegal. It was fishing.”

The Coast Guard’s drug-war battlefield spans millions of square miles of open sea. Admiral Karl Schultz, the Coast Guard commandant, said at a recent budget hearing that in the eastern Pacific, where most of the world’s cocaine is trafficked, his agency can detect probably about 80 percent of the drug movements. “It’s fishing vessels, it’s these low-profile vessels,” he said. But he went on to say that the Coast Guard only has the capacity to stop about 20 to 30 percent of what it thinks is out there. Thousands of tons of cocaine still end up in the United States every year.

The New York Times reported in its investigation that the maritime drug battle intensified beginning in 2012, when the Defense Department launched a campaign against South American smuggling routes. Since that year, Coast Guard detentions have soared from an average of 200 a year in the 1990s and 2000s, according to the Times, to triple that in 2018. Between 2012 and 2018, McBride said in his email, the agency detained some 3,300 suspected smugglers. (He noted that in the past year it also boarded and searched 100 vessels without detaining anybody, due to lack of evidence.)  

Of those detained, McBride said, some 2,600 were brought to the United States to stand trial. Getting them there is a “complex logistical endeavor,” he said, but the aim is to bring them to shore as quickly as possible. This is difficult, though, since the Coast Guard does about 85 percent of its work in the eastern Pacific, south of the West Coast of the United States, but most of the prosecutions take place in Florida, on the other side of the country—where the Justice Department has teams experienced in dealing with such cases, and where courts have taken a broad view of the Coast Guard’s authority to stop drug smuggling even when the product is not bound straight for the U.S. And Coast Guard cutters were never designed for prolonged detentions.

“You don’t have jail cells on vessels. I don’t know any nation that has jail cells on vessels,” Craig H. Allen, the Judson Falknor professor of law at the University of Washington, told me. The ships are always full and the crew never knows how many people they might pick up when they set out. “So where are you going to put them?” Allen, who is a retired Coast Guard officer, said that when he served, detainees would be restrained and, in warmer climates such as the Carribbean, might be kept in the hangar deck, a covered space for a helicopter.

“You need to restrain them, and the unfortunate fact is that they’re shackled to what we used to call a strongback,” like a beam secured to the deck to keep their movements limited, he said. “And there would be guards as well. You have to understand, these people are facing felony charges, and some of them might well get desperate. So you always restrain them.”

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