MIAMI – A team of elite divers donned wetsuits and air tanks and descended into the murky waters beneath the 498-foot container ship M/V Seaboard Pride, on a mission in the dark to search for an unusual stowaway: drugs.
The seven members of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement dive team, formed in 2004 and the only one of its kind in the U.S., were searching for large metal boxes that Latin American cocaine traffickers sometimes weld or clamp onto freighters and even cruise ships to smuggle drugs. The boxes also could be used to hide terrorist bombs or weapons.
Once in this country, the boxes can be opened by divers working with the drug organizations. Sometimes they are detached and later opened at another location. The so-called parasitic devices have been found on vessels in Miami, West Palm Beach and elsewhere containing bricks of cocaine and other illegal drugs — although, so far, no bombs or weapons.
ICE agent Dean Lang, assistant chief of the dive team, said the intense law enforcement focus on drug trafficking through Mexico could push some cocaine smuggling operations to U.S. coasts and ports. Miami in the 1980s was a main avenue for cocaine, and U.S. officials don't want a return to the violent "cocaine cowboy" days, when rival drug traffickers battled in South Florida for control.
"If you cut off one way for drugs to get in, they will find another way," Lang said.
When agents first boarded the white-and-green Seaboard Pride, they informed its captain of the random check and secured all machinery so none of the 13 mainly Filipino crew members would inadvertently start a propeller or pump. The captain, Dariusz Karbowiak, said he had just unloaded a dozen 40-foot containers of fruit and seafood and did not suspect anything illegal.
"It's no problem. We have no problem," said Karbowiak, 42, who is from Koszalin, Poland. "I don't have any events where I suspect something wrong."
The ICE agents quickly obtained blueprints of the ship's hull. With two agents staying aboard, the divers jumped feet-first off a sea wall into Biscayne Bay to execute a search known as a "half-necklace" — meaning they would swim underneath one side, circle the ship's stern by the massive propeller and then inspect the other side. They held a length of rope to communicate with various hand tugs and pulls.
"Don't squeeze too tight," the ICE dive team leader, agent Joseph Skidmore, told the men. "Just keep a loose grip."
It's not as easy as it seems. The water was dark green, even on a sunny February morning. Currents are treacherous and unpredictable in the relatively shallow water about 15 feet below the surface. The divers sometimes encounter sharks, barracuda and eels, and they can feel strong vibrations from the ship inches above.
It's extremely dark, and the divers can only see about four to seven feet ahead, said Alan Vega, a team member who has done about 100 dives over the past three years.
"You have a flashlight and it's like very burgundy red, which is the paint they put on the ship," Vega said. "And you're just kind of scanning along ... to see if there is anything unusual. It's not a nice scenic Caribbean dive."
A few yards away from the ship, a police boat motors slowly back and forth to prevent other craft from approaching — and just in case there's a problem.
Sometimes a ship is targeted because it spent time in a drug-source country such as Colombia. Other times, tips are received about ships that may have had boxes attached during repairs or maintenance when they are taken out of the water.
Other dives are random, said Anthony Mangione, chief of the ICE field office in Miami.
Back on the bay, the ICE team found nothing amiss on the Seaboard Pride during a 20-minute search.
"Everything looks good, but it needs cleaning," Skidmore told the captain, Karbowiak.
With that, Karbowiak and his ship were cleared for their next trip to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. Although the divers came up empty, each dive is invaluable training for other missions, including possible attempts by al-Qaida or other terrorist groups to use ports like Miami to bring in explosive devices or blow up the ships themselves.
"Smugglers, terrorists, you know, they adapt," Vega said. "So it could be a ship coming in from London, who is an ally of the U.S. We'll search it, because you never know where that wild card is going to be."
When they aren't scanning the cargo vessels, the divers also scour waterways when presidents and dignitaries visit. Sometimes they have kept watch while investigating drug trafficking and other crimes, or helped local police locate guns and stolen cars from lakes and quarries. In January, for instance, the team made a grisly find in a canal: a still-unidentified human skull.
It's even more difficult to see during those forays into fresh water, the agents said — and tougher to watch for alligators, crocodiles and poisonous snakes.
"South Florida has lots of different kinds of threats," Mangione said. "This is a challenging environment to work in."