U.S. unloads record bust of 20 tons of cocaine

ALAMEDA, California Mon Apr 23, 2007 8:05pm BST

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ALAMEDA, California (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard unloaded nearly 20 tons of cocaine with a retail street value of $600 million (300 million pounds) into a California port on Monday following what they called the largest drug bust ever at sea.

The armed Coast Guard cutter Sherman stopped the Panamanian cargo ship Gatun about 20 miles off a Panamanian island on March 17. On Monday dozens of Coast Guard officials under heavy armed protection hauled bales of tightly wrapped packs of cocaine onto a pier at the service's West Coast command centre near Oakland, California.

"It was the largest bust in U.S. history. It's the largest interdiction on the ocean," Lt. Brock Eckel, one of the officers from the Sherman who discovered the illegal drugs, said in an interview. "It was very exciting, of course. Fifteen guys moved 20 tons of contraband in five hours, so it was very exhausting."

The find aboard the Gatun, which was heading from Panama to Mexico in the Pacific Ocean, came late at night following a tip from an intelligence source, officials said.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Keith Alholm estimated the U.S. street value of the record bust at $300 million wholesale, $600 million retail.

The cargo ship's 14 crew members were Panamanians and Mexicans, who acted nervously but were not armed and offered no resistance when stopped, Coast Guard officials present during the inspection said. The cargo ship also carried tiles and sand.

"If you try to fight with the U.S. Coast Guard, you come out on the losing end. It would be futile," said Charles DeMore, head of the San Francisco office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Panamanians were handed over to Panama while the Mexicans were taken into U.S. custody, Eckel said. The drugs would be transferred to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for eventual incineration.

The Coast Guard ship had experienced mechanical difficulties during its mission and was running so low on water that the crew had stopped showering by the time of the March 17 raid, officials said.

"At the end of the day there is nothing like a good drug bust to lift everyone's spirit," said the ship's captain, Charlie Diaz. "We were, of course, elated."

The Alameda, California-based crew also made two smaller drug interdictions during their 101-day patrol at sea, officials said.

(Additional reporting by Scott Hillis)

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