Esquimalt based warship helps put a dent in drug trade

Ottawa crew members involved in international operation in the Caribbean

Sailors aboard HMCS Ottawa keep an eye out for family and friends as their ship docks at CFB Esquimalt after a six-week deployment on Operation (Op) Caribe in the Caribbean. The ship aided U.S. Coast Guard teams in seizing illegal drugs worth more than $145 million US.

Local singer-songwriter Vince Vaccaro wrote his hit Costa Rica to illustrate a tired man yearning for a fresh start along the shorelines of the picturesque Central American country.

“Can I lose my name, be someone new, and I’ll throw my troubles into the wild blue,” Vaccaro sings.

For the crew aboard a Costa Rican fishing vessel last month, the lyrics couldn’t have resonated more, as the HMCS Ottawa emerged out of the rain and fog of the Pacific Ocean.

Comm. Scott Van Will, Ottawa‘s commanding officer, sent a U.S. Coast Guard team onto the ship, and discovered just over 1,000 kilograms of pure cocaine stacked beneath the deck.

“We seized more more than $145 million in illicit drugs,” Van Will said at the celebratory return of Ottawa to CFB Esquimalt on Friday (Dec. 14).

Van Will led the Canadian component of a Operation Caribbe, a U.S.-led multinational effort to combat narco-terrorism and stem the cocaine supply routes between cultivating areas in South America and the transportation hubs of Central America.

“Generally, (traffickers) head from Colombia or Ecuador north to drop it off in Guatemala, Costa Rica or Mexico for onward distribution to the U.S. and Canada,” Van Will said.

The Ottawa was at sea for nearly two months. It was the first time a Canadian ship was involved in a large drug bust in an international operation, Van Will said.

“The U.S. were very happy and pleased with our efforts (there).”

The weather worked against the crew in locating the small fishing vessels used to transport drugs, primarily cocaine. There were rough seas, with visibility limited in some case to no more than a half-kilometre. Ottawa crew relied on the deployment of a Sea King helicopter to cover large areas of water.

“This time of year, the weather’s pretty bad down there,” Van Will said. “It’s rainy, it’s misty and you’re trying to find one of these really small fishing boats that don’t paint very well on radar.”

Operation Caribbe began in November 2006 and was expanded in October 2010 with of a memorandum of understanding between Canada and the U.S. Department of Defense. In 2011, the joint operation helped remove $4 billion in illicit drugs destined for U.S. and Canadian shores.

dpalmer@vicnews.com