TAMPA, Fla. — A series of major drug smuggling operation disruptions and seizures carried out between May and July 2019 off the coasts of Mexico, Central and South America owe a great deal to investigative work being done here in the Tampa Bay area.

  • Seizures from 14 different drug busts carried out by U.S. Coast Guard
  • Investigations carried out by Bay area "Operation Panama Express"
  • Task force composed of ICE, FBI, DEA, Coast Guard and other agencies
  • More Hillsborough County news

Off the high seas also means off the mean streets when it comes to drugs. Specifically, 18 tons of cocaine and nearly 1,000 pounds of marijuana — $569 million worth of illegal drugs — won't come ashore and hit the streets of American cities.

Instead, it's in the hands of U.S. federal agencies in San Diego today, thanks to 14 separate drug smuggling vessel interdictions and disruptions over the last two months.

Those busts would not have been possible, however, without the work of "Operation Panama Express," an organized crime and drug task force based in Tampa Bay.

“Eighty-five percent of the drugs being brought into San Diego today are actually evidence from cases being investigated out of Tampa Bay area,” said Special Agent in Charge (SAC) James Spero, ICE Homeland Security Investigations.

The task force is made up of multiple agencies, including ICE, DEA, FBI, the Coast Guard and others. The investigations in Tampa Bay are making communities across the country and the world safer. 

To be clear, the "85 percent" Spero referred to is not indicative of how much of that product was coming to Tampa Bay — only a fraction of it would most likely have made it here. It is just the baseline for the task force to investigate. 

Sadly, what may sound like a large amount of cocaine and marijuana is not unusual for a month of smuggling. But either way, taking that much off the streets means one thing to Spero.  

“That is 39,000 pounds of cocaine that is not going poisoning U.S. communities,” he said. 

In total, 55 people were detained during the interdiction operations, and 32 will be brought to the U.S. for prosecution. The others may face charges in other countries.