St. Petersburg, Fla. -- A massive cocaine bust off Central America made it's way to the Bay area today, when a Coast Guard cutter loaded down with tons of cocaine pulled into port in St. Petersburg.
The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Cypress then proceeded to unload more than 15,000 pounds of coaine right there on the dock.
Photo Gallery: Coast Guard cocaine bust
The drugs were seized off the coast of Honduras about three weeks ago when the crew of another cutter, the Mohawk, intercepted a semi-submersible. The vessels are stealthy, made of fiberglass, and look like submarines that move along the surface. They're built to elude radar.
The semi-submersible intercepted this time, and another found just three weeks earlier, each carried about $180 million in illegal drugs.
Lt. Commander Paul Morgan, who held the Cypress steady enough in stormy waters to retrieve the cocaine, said it was hard to beleive what they were seeing at first.
"I think, initially, the first stuff we got up was the big bales and after that there were just tons of the single kilos," said Morgan.
This was the third semi-submersible, say Coast Guard officials, that they've intercepted in the Caribbean since July.
"Which tells us we need to shift our tacticts and be more aware of this new conveyance they're bringing into the Caribbean," said Rear Admiral Bill Baumgartner.
To give you an idea of just how much illegal contraband we're talking about, if you added up all the land-based drug seizures in the U.S. for a year - every city, every state and every federal agency - this single seizure would represent about one third of it.
As with other interdictions, the crew aboard the submersible tried to sink it and get rid of the evidence, but the water was relatively shallow. That allowed a team of FBI divers to bring the drugs to the surface.
It's only the second time they've been able to do that, said Rear Admiral Baumgartner.
"We can't leave cocaine sitting in shallow water where people know where it's at. It won't be there for long," he said.
Most of the semi-submersibles are built in Columbia, say officials, at a cost of $600,000 to a million dollars each. That's a small price considering the value of the contraband cargo.
Since they were first observed in 1993, 36 of the submersibles have been intercepted, say Coast Guard officials, but they don't know how many have made it throguh. What's clear is that they are becoming more common and, now, moving closer to our shorelines.
"They're very innovative and they're extremely well-funded," said Rear Admiral Baumgartner.
Officials say there were five people aboard the submersible. All are facing drug charges. Also, Congress passed a law making it a federal crime to even be aboard one of the drug vessels.
The cocaine itself has been handed over to the DEA.