In less than 30 days between September and October this year, Customs and Border Patrol agents and the US Coast Guard recovered nearly 400 pounds of marijuana floating in the waters off the Florida Keys and eastern Florida.
The drugs, collected in 15 separate incidents, were found floating at sea and washed up on shore. The street value of the total haul was estimated to be $306,400, the CBP said in a release.
The drug seizures over the last several weeks appear to be part of an upswing in such incidents.
According to the CBP, during Fiscal Year 2015, which ran October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015, there were 49 such seizures. During the following Fiscal Year, which ended September 30, those type of seizures nearly doubled, hitting 95.
“There has been a significant spike in drugs washing up on shore,” US Border Patrol Miami Sector division chief, Todd Bryant, said in a release. “This is at least partially attributable to improved partnerships across the state but potentially also to a shift in smuggling methods.”
Floating drug loads are not a new development for Florida. During the 1980s, smugglers frequently used maritime and air routes over the eastern Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to funnel drugs into South Florida and on to points north.
Since those smugglers often dropped drug cargoes into the water — either while avoiding pursuers or for later pickup by other traffickers — it was not uncommon for bales of marijuana or cocaine to be spotted by boaters or to wash up on Florida’s coast.
Seizures of drugs at sea or floating ashore have occurred with some regularity since the heyday of Caribbean trafficking in the 1980s.
A mid-1998 New York Times report described the increased use of airplane-to-boat drops and of stash houses as a sign that the Bahamas-Florida smuggling route was seeing more traffic. That resurgence appeared to be spurred on by smaller, more flexible organizations making use of better navigation tools to augment their drug-transport operations in the expanse of the Bahamian archipelago.
In more recent years, maritime seizures of both marijuana and cocaine have continued.
Between April and October 2012, 855 pounds of marijuana washed up on South Florida beaches. The amount of marijuana seized by the Coast Guard during that fiscal year was the most intercepted since 1997.
The following year, fishermen off Destin, in northeast Florida, found a 25-kilogram package of cocaine floating in the water. They hauled it in and turned in the cargo, with an estimated worth of $2.5 million, to authorities.
In 2015, two men were busted trying to sell one kilo of a 24-kilogram cocaine bundle they said they recovered at sea off the Florida Keys. (They asked an undercover officer to pay $10,000; a kilo was going for $35,000 at the time.)
The seizures between September and October this year aren’t confirmation of a wholesale shift in trafficking routes, but it’s possible that some smugglers operating out of South or Central America have looked anew to Caribbean routes in light of upheaval in Mexico’s narco underworld and increased enforcement at the US-Mexico border.