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U.S. Coast Guard Operating Inhumane Floating Prisons

by Christopher Zoukis

An eye-opening report from The New York Times has exposed the existence of multiple “floating Guantanamos” operated by the U.S. Coast Guard throughout the Pacific Ocean. Coast guard cutters on missions to interdict suspected drug smugglers in international waters have become de facto prisons for detainees. Some of the suspected smugglers have spent months chained to ship decks, awaiting transfer to the mainland for prosecution in American courts.

According to the Times, using the Coast Guard to interdict seaborne contraband headed to the United States is an age-old practice. Before the mid-1980s, however, it was restricted to U.S. territorial waters. With the passage of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act of 1986, drug smuggling in international waters became a crime and interdictions expanded farther and farther out to sea.

Since the 2012 launching of Operation Martillo, or “hammer” in Spanish, the Coast Guard has detained more than 2,700 people in international waters on suspicion of smuggling cocaine to Central America. Once detained, the Coast Guard employs the fiction that the suspects are not under arrest, sometimes chains them to the deck exposed to the elements, feeds them near starvation rations and provides them buckets for toilets.

The Times report indicates that detainees are held in this inhumane legal limbo for weeks or months while the ships continue their patrols. Eventually, they are delivered to the U.S. where most will face criminal charges. It is only at that point that the detainees are formally arrested.

Two of the alleged smugglers profiled in the Times described their on-board meals as consisting of small portions of black beans and rice, with an occasional piece of chicken or spinach. Jhonny Arcentales, a fisherman who was caught smuggling cocaine, lost 20 pounds during almost 70 days of floating confinement, while Jair Guevara Payan lost 50. They were moved from ship to ship, chained to the deck by the ankle, defecated in buckets and threw the waste overboard. The men were required to clean out the buckets themselves.

The vagaries of international maritime law allow the Coast Guard to engage in what could fairly be described as a pattern of kidnapping and human rights abuses. Defense lawyers have challenged the practice in federal courts with no success. One judge refused to dismiss a detainee’s indictment due to outrageous government conduct, though said he was troubled by accounts of “inadequate nutrition, weight loss, lack of privacy for toilet use and lack of sufficient protection from the elements.”

“This is not to say that such treatment of detainees is condoned by this court,” said the judge. “Far from it.”

And yet it goes on. The practices of the Coast Guard would be unlikely to satisfy international human rights requirements either, said Oxford maritime-law scholar Efthymios Papastavridis.

“In a European context, what the U.S. does would not meet the standard,” he stated.

Arcentales, who was sentenced to a decade in federal prison, told the Times that the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Coast Guard will haunt him forever.

“I had a terrible nightmare about the chains,” he said. “I would wake up feeling the chains digging into my ankle and jerking my leg thinking I was shackled, and feel my leg freed and be relieved that I was not chained there on the boat. I would wake up sweating; almost crying, thinking I was still chained. Over time, it passes. But a thing like this, it never leaves you.”

In an interview, Seth Freed Wessler, who wrote the November 20, 2017 Times article, noted the practice of holding suspects at sea for long periods of time has been condoned by the judicial system.

“Courts have generally bought the government’s argument,” he said. “The argument by the Coast Guard and by federal prosecutors [is] that these logistical delays are legitimate, as it’s hard enough to get people back. The reality is that when the Coast Guard has had to move people more quickly, they do. Very often, detainees are brought to port in one of these cutters, then placed in a hidden room in a helicopter hangar or in a room below deck and hidden there for the day while the Coast Guard cutter refuels or the Coast Guard crew get a bit of a break and then are brought back out to sea.

“So there are these delays that people in the Coast Guard – Coast Guard officials I interviewed – thought really are actually unreasonable, considering that they’re near an airport. Somebody could be put on a plane and brought back to the United States. As we’ve made this decision to prosecute more and more people, these delays have grown longer and longer.”


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