Drug Smuggling Suspect Killed During U.S. Coast Guard Pursuit

A HITRON squad in operation during a pursuit (USCG file image)
A HITRON squad in operation during a pursuit (USCG file image)

Published Jan 11, 2024 3:11 PM by The Maritime Executive

On New Year's Day, a Coast Guard airborne pursuit team accidentally killed a drug-running suspect during an interdiction in the Caribbean, the service said Thursday.

The Coast Guard's airborne marksmen have a unique mission, honed over decades of practice and hundreds of interdictions. USCG aircrews and sharpshooters are based aboard patrol vessels in the Caribbean, and they deploy when a fast-moving smuggling boat is spotted. If the suspect boat fails to stop when ordered, the marksman may be authorized to fire warning shots; if the boat still doesn't stop, the marksman may shoot out its engines with a rifle. This disables the suspect vessel until an over-the-horizon boat crew can arrive to board and search it.  

On January 1, a Coast Guard counter-narcotics team was under way aboard a U.S. Navy warship at an undisclosed location near the Dominican Republic. The team detected a suspected smuggling vessel and gave pursuit, launching a Navy helicopter with a Coast Guard sharpshooter on board. When the suspect boat did not stop, Coast Guard District Seven gave authorization for "airborne use of force," including standard warning shots and disabling fire. 

When the Coast Guard boat team arrived on scene to board the suspect vessel, they found that one of the people on board had sustained a gunshot injury. 

The injured suspect was treated on scene and medevaced to the Dominican Republic for higher care. The Coast Guard later learned from the Dominican authorities that the patient had died of his wounds. 

"The Coast Guard takes any loss of life seriously and is working to investigate the incident in accordance with Coast Guard policy," said Lt. Cmdr. John W. Beal, Coast Guard District Seven public affairs officer. "The critical homeland security missions the Coast Guard conducts every day as America's primary maritime law enforcement agency are inherently dangerous."

Though the outcome included a rare fatality, the interaction did yield a drug bust. Two surviving smugglers were arrested and will be returned to the United States for prosecution. The boarding team also seized 385 kilos of cocaine with an estimated wholesale value of $11 million.

[Correction: This article originally stated that the interdiction was carried out by a Coast Guard HITRON squad. This is incorrect: the helicopter was operated by the U.S. Navy, and only the marksman was a coastguardsman.]