The Coast Guard is fighting the drug war by chaining people to boats for months without shelter or toilets AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
A U.S. Coast Guard vessel is shown, Sunday, June 7, 2015, off the coast of Deerfield Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The Coast Guard’s motto is “Semper Paratus,” which means, “Always Ready.” But ready to do what? Their duties are not, as it turns out, limited to such classic Coast Guard activities as rescuing boaters in trouble and guarding American ports. No, the Coast Guard is also fighting the drug war, using its ships as “floating Guantanamos.” USA Today reports:

[T]here’s a secret U.S. detention system in the War on Drugs, too — and this one is aboard U.S. Coast Guard cutters sailing in the Pacific Ocean.

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.

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Months. Our Coast Guard is keeping people chained to the floor, outside, on large boats, for months, to maintain an enormously costly and dangerous program that also happens to be totally ineffective at reducing the sale and use of drugs in our country.

The New York Times report USA Today cites opens with the story of Jhonny Arcentales, a fisherman from Ecuador who accepted a gig running a load of cocaine because he desperately needed money to secure a good life for his wife and children, including their newborn baby.

Arcentales was supposed to be gone for five days, but he wound up shackled to a U.S. Coast Guard deck for weeks. He could only move a few feet in each direction, was fed a subsistence diet of mostly rice and beans, slept on a “thin rubber mat,” and was not unchained even to use the bathroom. Instead, the Coast Guard supplied its prisoners with buckets. Arcentales was captured in the fall of 2014, so he and the other men chained to the deck with him were exposed to cold, wind, and rain.

Meanwhile, the captured men’s families — not informed about their loved ones’ predicament — could only assume they’d met a tragic end. After a few weeks on the deck, Arcentales said, he began to imagine dying. One of the other men asked a Coast Guard member to shoot him so he could stop being constantly cold, tired, and hungry.

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It would be 77 days from the time he left home to the time Arcentales was able to contact his wife and let her know he was still alive. He was tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing. The judge who sentenced him made a point to note that his imprisonment would do nothing to stop the flow of drugs into the United States, because Arcentales and fishermen like him are “lower level folks” with no real knowledge of the drug cartel’s structure or leadership, and are “just trying to do it to make some money for their family.”

Other drug war experts agree with that assessment. This means the Coast Guard is practicing indefinite, pre-trial detention, with no regard for constitutional rights or basic standards of humane treatment. And poor South American fisherman, whose lengthy imprisonment in U.S. jails yield no positive outcomes, are the victims. This is shameful and without excuse.

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