Esquimalt-based ships return from busting drug smugglers

Esquimalt-based navy ships HMCS Whitehorse and Nanaimo returned home Wednesday after an action-packed two months helping bust drug traffickers in Central America.

“By all accounts, it was a very successful operation,” said Lt.-Cmdr. Christopher Rochon, commanding officer of the Whitehorse. This was his first leading mission since taking the helm of the vessel in September.

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The two warships were at sea as part of the ongoing Operation Caribbe, a multinational campaign that targets organized crime in the Caribbean basin and the eastern Pacific Ocean. Navy ships track and locate suspicious vessels and U.S. law enforcement takes action to intercept them.

“We had two major incidents, which was quite exciting,” Rochon said.

On March 6, in the waters off Costa Rica, the Whitehorse was called to assist the U.S. Coast Guard and navy when they spotted a suspicious vessel’s crew throwing bales overboard.

“It was a coastal freighter — not a huge one — but in rough shape. Not exactly seaworthy,” said Rochon.

The bales turned out to be contraband, each containing about six kilograms of cocaine. “It appeared they were trying to make a run up north.”

In total, the operation retrieved nearly 6,000-kilograms of cocaine — the second largest seizure to date. A few weeks later, the ship helped bust another cocaine-trafficking attempt off the coast of El Salvador. “We were on patrol and had an indication a suspicious vessel was heading toward us,” said Rochon. “At some point, the crew on that vessel determined they must’ve been spotted by an aircraft and turned around to start running, so we chased them for a bit.”

Rochon said the crew started throwing items overboard. It turned out to be about 600 kilograms of cocaine in 15 bales, which were fished out of the water.

On March 10, HMCS Nanaimo had an additional intercept when they found 50 one-kilogram packets of cocaine floating in the ocean off the coast of Central America. The navy said the source of the drugs was not known.

“We train and train for these operations and, when we were in them, the crew did exactly what I expected,” said Rochon, adding the crew spends a lot of time drawing up scenarios and analyses. “They show you how prepared we are.”

Rochon said about 30 per cent of the 45-person crew on Whitehorse are regular forces and the rest are reservists. Some reservists have full-time work in the navy and others will return to civilian jobs. “It’s a very mixed crew. One of the members is in university engineering, doing a co-op,” Rochon said, adding the sailor’s fluency in Spanish helped during the mission.

The deployment was one of the first since the navy issued a ban on alcohol aboard ships last December. The ban was driven in part by an incident involving the Whitehorse in July 2014, when the ship was called back to port from international war game exercises near San Diego after episodes involving alcohol and bad behaviour.

Rochon said the alcohol ban hasn’t had a major impact on the current crew. “We had our talks about it and it is a bit of a cultural shift, but you do it for a bit and realize it’s not a huge part of our operations. We’re very busy,” Rochon said, noting this crew was particularly good at finding downtime activities, which included game tournaments, making music videos, Nerf gun games and star-gazing.

However, they skipped the swimming on this mission.

“There appeared to be a lot of shark fishermen in the area,” Rochon said.

The ship will take part in shorter coastal missions throughout the summer, until it is deployed again closer to fall.

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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