Speed Reads

war on drugs

The U.S. Coast Guard is secretly detaining drug suspects for weeks or months without charges or bathrooms

The U.S. Coast Guard "usually has a reputation for being the good guys out there — rescuing people, apprehending bad guys," says Carol Hills at PRI's The World, but new reporting has also uncovered a darker side: In recent years, Coast Guard vessels have become a sort of secret floating Guantánamo Bay for the War on Drugs. Coast Guard cutters patrolling off the coast of South and Central America interdict suspected drug smugglers and hold them without charge on board, often chained to the deck, for an average of 18 days but often much longer, before handing them over to U.S. authorities in Florida.

Seth Freed Wessler, who reported the story for The New York Times Magazine, recounts one example where an Ecuadorean fisherman, Jhonny Arcentales, and two shipmates were held in chains on the decks of Coast Guard and Navy vessels for 70 days, incommunicado and without access to a bathroom, after they were picked up moving cocaine to Guatemala. Arecentales, now serving 10 years in federal prison, had no idea where he was headed, Wessler says. "He describes the experience of feeling like he really might disappear."

The U.S. claims authority to nab foreigners far outside of U.S. waters, for smuggling drugs that may not be headed to the U.S., from a combination of international maritime law, agreements with Latin American nations, and the U.S. Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. John Kelly, now President Trump's chief of staff, played a significant role in authorizing these "floating Guantánamos," Wessler says. "The Coast Guard makes the argument that these people are not formally under arrest until they get to the United States," and courts have generally accepted that, he adds, but it's pretty clear that something else is going on, and even Coast Guard commanders appear uncomfortable with it. You can read Wessler's article at the Times Magazine, and listen to part of his interview with PRI below. Peter Weber