I read a news story today that stated “In an effort to staunch the flow of cocaine and other hard drugs from South America to Central America and points north, Coast Guard cutters have been deployed farther and farther from the shore in the Pacific Ocean. When these cutters capture a boat carrying drugs, the smugglers are brought onto the ships and kept shackled to the deck, sometimes outside in the elements, until the Coast Guard makes arrangements for them to be transported back to the U.S. for trial.” But this isn’t a wait of just a few hours or days. Often, these waits can last weeks or months, according to new reporting from The New York Times. Coast Guard officials say they can do this because the drug smugglers aren’t under arrest until they reach U.S. shores, but some of the worst cases are drawing criticism even from Coast Guard officials.
In reading the online comments to this story, there is great skepticism, and I must candidly admit, that I find myself firmly among the skeptics. Shackling someone to the deck of a vessel exposed to the elements for weeks or months at a time would be tantamount to a death sentence. I have known many Coast Guard sailors and officers over the years, in both a personal and professional capacity and for such a story to be true, as stated, would require them to lack any semblance of humanity. However, even in the most sensationalistic stories, there can be some thread of truth. Even smugglers have basic human rights. The United States is a proud proponent of those rights. For those reasons, we have laws, and courts in which those laws are enforced. Any such conduct would rightfully expose the US Coast Guard to litigation.