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Marijuana on beach linked to new U.S. interdiction program

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of October 4, 2012)
Photo of washed up package.

Tightly wrapped packages of marijuana are washing up on barrier island beaches, including three on Vero beaches that combined weighed more than 50 pounds, and the Coast Guard says a tough new U.S. interdiction program in the Caribbean may be forcing smugglers to dump their loads.

That increased surveillance is prompting drug smugglers to toss marijuana loads in the sea, including more than 400 pounds that washed up on Jupiter Island Saturday.

On Sept. 16, Joseph Scarola’s eyes were peeled as he moved down the beach on his ATV to monitor sea turtles. He had just received a text message from a co-worker at Ecological Associates that she had found marijuana washed up near the John’s Island club.

About a half mile north of Golden Sands Beach, Scarola noticed a second water-logged 10- by-12-by-5-inch bundle being lapped by the foamy surf. A corner of the plastic and heavily taped bundle had been torn and the pungent smell of marijuana filled the area around him. “It was really strong,” Scarola said of the odor.

Ten days later, another turtle watcher found 33 pounds off our South Beach.

All three bundles of marijuana were turned over to the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office.

Depending on the grade, a pound of marijuana can range from $1,000 a pound to close to $5,000, authorities say. An in-between figure places the street value amount of the marijuana found in Indian River and Palm Beach counties at $1,172,000.

“That’s quite a bit of marijuana,” said Jupiter police Sgt. Scott Pascarella. He said a fisherman found the eight bundles there, and called police.

The 27-year-old Scarola said he didn’t think for a second about not calling local law enforcement after he found his package.

That’s good news to Deputy Jeff Luther, the public information officer at the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s very dangerous and people may not know what they are messing with,” he said. “One way or another, trouble will follow if you decided to take it with you.”

The sheriff’s office stepped up its efforts to find bales of marijuana before beach walkers do, Luther said. Normally, the helicopters patrol for errant boats, but these days it’s been for marijuana.

The finds are reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s when water-logged bales of marijuana referred to as “square grouper” washed ashore along the state’s southern coastline.

The areas’ recent finds appear to be a result of a massive U.S.–led, multi-agency, multi-country, drug seizure offensive dubbed Operation Martillo – hammer in Spanish – that started in January.

Military helicopters and boats have been chasing smugglers’ boats and – in some cases smugglers’ submarines – to stop the open sea drug trade along the Central American isthmus.

In August, some 200 Marines landed in Guatemala to join the fight to rein in narco-terrorists. Not since the U.S. troops pulled out of Guatemala in the middle of its civil war has there been such a large American presence there.

The Key West-based Joint Interagency Task Force-South, a component of U.S. Southern Command, is heading the U.S. military participation.

The Coast Guard had seized 57 vessels and detained 301 people since the start of the operation through the end of July. The effort seized 78,672 pounds of marijuana and 139,799 pounds of cocaine.

Officials say that about 80 to 90 percent of all cocaine in the U.S. passes through Central America.

El Heraldo, a Colombian newspaper, reported recently that Operation Martillo through August was responsible for inflicting a loss of $2.12 billion on the drug trafficking networks.

That’s just what authorities know about and not what has been washing ashore in the recent weeks.

Drug runners typically throw the bundles overboard when being tailedm and the Gulf Stream does the rest, pushing the bales north.

That’s how the pot likely ended up along South Florida’s coastline, said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss.

He said during the current anti-drug operation, some sea chases have stretched for up to 100 miles.

Drug trafficking networks have been quick to adapt to the sea and air chases, and have recently been using commercial fisherman to move their drugs, officials say. 

Doss said the Coast Guard is ready for them. “We are prepared for anything,” he said. “We check as many vessels as we can.”