After spending a year at Small Boat Station Pensacola, Florida, conducting search and rescue and minor law enforcement, I was sent to Law Enforcement School. The school presented the ins and outs of past cases in law enforcement. The school covered all the past mistakes and success stories about drug trafficking. What struck a chord with several of us were the reasons some of the drug runners decided to take this path of life for themselves. Their reasons were many, and we had to consider many different factors that had gone into their decision to take this job. Our instructors at the school made sure that they didn’t send us into the field with the mindset that every person we were going to arrest was only out there because of selfish greed and wrong intentions. Several of these individuals were taking part in these acts to protect or be able to provide for their families. There were several cases in which the detainees would jump overboard to their death after being handcuffed to avoid punishment of their families back home because they had failed to complete the job. The entire game of law enforcement out on the open seas was less black and white than I had initially thought. The story below is the first of many cases I would be involved in over my fours years in the Coast Guard. I wrote this story from the perspective of one of the crew members of a boat that our ship had come across and detained.
It was two in the morning and the night was pitch black. We had left the Galapagos Islands at nightfall and had been traveling at full speed for quite some time. All I could think about was my family back home in Columbia, sleeping peacefully in their beds. My body ached from the constant beating of the waves through the open seas at twenty-two knots. Every hard wave reminded me that I wasn’t home but on a go-fast boat delivering twelve tons of uncut cocaine to the port of Acapulco, Mexico. One week ago I was working at a factory, making it week by week on the paycheck I received. It wasn’t much, but I was happy with what I had. Then for whatever reason I got forced to run drugs for the warlord. I knew when asked there was no choice, and from local knowledge I knew that if I were not successful at the job, my family’s lives would be lost. One week ago I felt like I was blessed in life with choices; now my choices lay in the hands of my situation. With a zero light policy on the go fast boat, all I could see was darkness. Out of my gaze the veteran runner shook me as he was trying to signal something over the roar of the engines. I could tell from his facial expression that something had gone wrong. The US Coast Guard had detected our boat, and the ship was less then 500 yards behind us. The veteran runner maneuvered the boat with shaky hands as we tried to escape the inevitable. It was only a matter of time before they would launch the helicopter, and our doom would be sealed. From the moment I was forced into this scenario this thought had been replaying in my head. I had already come to terms with ending my life if I was caught, in an attempt to save my family. Runner’s families lives were taken to let others know that if caught, your family would pay the price of your failure. This made sure that runners would not intentionally turn over millions of dollars in drugs to law enforcement, and it gave the family man the ultimate motivation. My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the helicopter rotors overhead. I couldn’t make out what they were saying over the loudhailer, but could tell by the tone that it was serious. It didn’t matter if I could make out what they were saying; we all knew what it meant. Then three fifty cal bursts swept the bow in a warning shot that meant internationally to stop your engines. The veteran runner stopped the engines and began dumping our fuel in the boat in an attempt to burn the evidence. The veteran runner and myself emptied every last gallon into the hull of the boat. He handed me the flare and jumped overboard. The US Coast Guard was now less than a hundred yards away. From the illumination of their flares I could see the massive outline of the ship. I could see the guns along the deck pointed at the boat, and I could see the ship lowering a boat full of armed men. I could see my choices left were pretty slim to none. I was covered in fuel and had one last choice to make. I choose to burn.
Ben Hatcher was a Boatswain Mate Second Class Petty Officer, US Coast Guard, 2001-2005. His tours include: Small Boat Station Pensacola search and rescue 2001-2003, North and South Pacific Patrols 2003-2004, and Persian Gulf with the Expeditionary Strike Group 2004-2005.