Photos: Royal Navy, U.S. Coast Guard Team Up on Three Drug Busts

Royal Marines sink a drug-running craft after an interdiction by RFA Argus (Royal Navy)

Published Sep 20, 2020 2:00 PM by The Maritime Executive

Earlier this month, a team of Royal Navy sailors, Royal Marines and the U.S. Coast Guard team on board the Royal Fleet Auxiliary support ship RFA Argus hauled in 11 bales of cocaine weighing nearly 360 kilos. It was just the first of three Royal Navy drug busts in seven days.

Patrol ship HMS Medway and her U.S. Coast Guard team followed that up by catching traffickers in two interceptions within 24 hours in the Caribbean Sea, seizing 650 kilos of cocaine.

Together, the haul would be worth a combined $100 million if delivered and sold wholesale in the UK. 

"The Royal Navy and the US Coast Guard have prevented a significant quantity of drugs crossing the Caribbean that could have been destined for the streets of the UK," said Commander Jim Blythe (RN), the CO of HMS Medway.

Caribbean counternarcotics operations are in the British interest. According to recent research, the overwhelming majority of cocaine smuggled through the "transit zones" of the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific is not aimed at American consumers. Instead, about 80 percent appears to be headed for more lucrative overseas markets in Europe and beyond, thanks to onward transportation arranged at container ports in Central America and Mexico. Prices are higher and demand is greater in these overseas markets, giving Colombian smugglers an incentive to direct their cargoes to the ports of Colon or Limon-Moin, not to the U.S. border.

Three raids

In the first successful interdiction, an American maritime patrol aircraft spotted a suspicious vessel riding low in the water and reported it to Argus, which changed course to investigate. The 28,000-tonne vessel used squalls as cover to stay out of sight while her boarding team of Royal Marines and U.S. Coast Guardsmen prepared to intercept.

On approaching the target craft, the Royal Marines were spotted and the suspect vessel’s crew started to throw their illegal cargo overboard. “Some patches of heavy rain had hidden Argus from sight in the distance and we were closing in unseen. When we were one mile off they saw us and started to run for it. We gave chase," said coxswain Corporal Max Bygraves. “We could see people on board throwing packages into the sea. This is important evidence, so we had to stop and collect one. The rest were picked up later. We then continued the chase and managed to catch the vessel.

The crew of the intercepted vessel were brought back to RFA Argus along with their seized cargo before being transferred to U.S. Coast Guard cutter Spencer. Their boat was subsequently sunk by soldiers from 24 Commando Royal Engineers.

Argus' RIB under way to conduct the interdiction (Royal Navy)

The seized shipment aboard RFA Argus (Royal Navy)

A few days later, HMS Medway acted on reports of a suspicious go-fast, diverting course and launching sea boats piloted by Royal Navy sailors with a US Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment aboard. Sixteen bales of cocaine and three detainees were captured in the first boarding, which required Medway to catch up with the suspect craft from 45 miles out.

Just one day later more information was fed to Medway and she gave chase to another craft, landing a further nine bales and three more detainees. Those detainees and the seized drugs have been handed over to US authorities, allowing Medway to resume patrols.

Image courtesy Royal Navy

Argus and Medway originally deployed to the Caribbean to support UK overseas territories during the coronavirus pandemic, and they stayed for their regular hurricane-season forward deployment. They have now been retasked to assist with counternarcotics patrols, according to UK Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey. “This is amazing work from our people after months away from home," he said.