US Court Ruling is Blow to Sea Drug Interdictions

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A court’s ruling that the United States cannot prosecute traffickers caught in other countries’ territorial waters could hinder its maritime anti-narcotics operations in Latin America, at a time when drug trafficking by sea is on the rise, reported the Miami Herald.

A November ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta declared that the US Congress overstepped its remit when drafting the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, which allowed the United States to prosecute drug traffickers caught in other countries’ waters. According to the Miami Herald, the ruling arose out of an investigation into the legality of the 2010 arrest and prosecution of four Panamanian drug traffickers. The four, arrested after the US Coast Guard alerted Panamanian authorities, were later sentenced in Miami.

A defense lawyer for the Panamanian traffickers told the Miami Herald, “This [was] basically a Panamanian internal matter, and their government [said], ‘United States, you clean it up for us.'”

If the ruling is upheld, it will prevent the United States from prosecuting suspects caught within a 12-mile boundary (19.3 km) of any foreign country and could hinder US authorities from entering the 12-mile zone themselves when carrying out anti-narcotics operations.

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This announcement, though still under review and open to being challenged by the Justice Department, could have an impact on US maritime interdictions in the region. Seizures have increased under US-led joint anti-narcotics effort Operation Martillo, which focused on Central America. Launched in January this year, US-led operations have seized over $2 billion worth of drugs, and saw an increase of over 30 percent in drug seizures in Central America in the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2011.

However, the ruling will not affect the interception of vessels outside the 12-mile boundary, which is where the majority occur. Miami attorney David Weinstein told the Miami Herald that the ruling was unlikely to affect the war on drugs, but would probably increase “the level and depth of communications between the United States and foreign countries,” as US forces would not be able to act unilaterally.

Go-fast boats are an increasingly popular method for trafficking narcotics up the Central American coastline as a result of the focus in recent years on cracking down on the US/Mexico border as a trafficking corridor.

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