The Backstory: Seth Freed Wessler

Wessler discusses how he discovered and reported on the U.S. Coast Guard’s fleet of “floating Guantánamos,” which detain and shackle low-level smugglers in international waters for weeks or even months.

In this Backstory, Seth Freed Wessler, a Puffin Fellow with The Investigative Fund, reveals how he discovered and reported on the U.S. Coast Guard’s fleet of “floating Guantánamos,” large cutters that patrol the Pacific Ocean to interdict boats smuggling cocaine. These mostly low-level smugglers are caught in international waters or foreign seas and usually don’t know where the drugs they are carrying are headed, yet are brought to U.S. courts for prosecution. While waiting to be arrested on U.S. shores, they are shackled on the ships, malnourished, and completely shut off from the world and their families, who may think they are dead. In Wessler’s piece — which ran in The New York Times Magazine — he tells the story of Jhonny Arcentales, an Ecuadorian fisherman who took a smuggling job to support his family, only to be arrested and separated from them for years. Arcentales called the Coast Guard cutter where he was imprisoned for 70 days “a prison in the open ocean.” — Jasper Craven

Jasper Craven: I guess if you could just start out talking a little bit about how you discovered this story. What tipped you off to these ‘floating Guantanomos,’ as they’re colloquially called?

Seth Freed Wessler: Well, I report often on federal law enforcement, on federal courts, and federal prosecutions. And in conversations with a federal defense attorney who’s been a source of mine for some time, we were talking about another kind of case that I was reporting on and this defense attorney brought up this case that, to her, was pretty strange, of a man who had been plucked out of the Pacific Ocean aboard a small boat that had cocaine on it and brought to the United States to be prosecuted. The kind of case was new to her, and she just told me about it and I began digging into what it was that was happening in that particular case, which led me to this body of hundreds and hundreds of cases in which mainly central and south American men —fishermen — had been detained in the Pacific Ocean by the United States Coast Guard. That, in and of itself, was interesting to me. It seemed like an exertion of U.S. extraterritorial legal might that surprised me, was beyond what I understood to be operating. And then the case files that I began to read in some of these federal prosecutions — I started to see claims of some pretty troubling conditions aboard the Coast Guard boats that these suspected smugglers were held on.

Craven: A key part of this reporting is nailing down the quarters on these boats —what they looked like, where the detainees were put. And I was struck by how you were able to reconstruct what these boats look like. You seemed to speak to detainees; it looks like you might have snuck on a ship in Boston at one point. You also had the detainees draw out the maps of these ships. Can you talk about how you figured out this reporting strategy?

Wessler: Sure. I mean, in general, there’s a lot of news, all the time, in newspapers in Florida and in California — sometimes national newspapers — about huge tonnage of cocaine that arrives at ports in the United States. And the United States Coast Guard and the Department of Justice federal prosecutors make pretty grand claims, excitedly, about this cocaine that they’ve been able to capture, bring back to the United States. And they can talk about all of the drugs that will stay off the streets of the United States. What’s left out of that story are the people who were detained with that cocaine. And I was interested in trying to figure out what happened to those men. And so I began by writing letters to men who’d been detained by the Coast Guard and were now incarcerated in U.S. federal prisons, asking them to describe the conditions of their confinement. You know, questions and issues about the conditions of confinement on these boats had been raised in briefs and filings in court, so I knew that this was a concern for them, but I didn’t have a full picture of what it was like.

So I began to ask in these letters to a group of prisoners pretty specific questions about what the boats were like, asking them to write back and describe the conditions. And I received in response long, detailed letters from both people that I was writing to directly, people who were held, you know — a single person in a prison in Mississippi — but then also began getting letters from other people held in those same prisons who these men had said, ‘Hey, there’s a guy interested in what happened to us on these boats, will you write him and tell your story?’

And so I began to get this flood of letters. And the letters were all very different but all described similar conditions aboard these boats. So that’s where I began. And then moving from there, wrote back to these men — many of these men — and asked for more information, more detail in the letters. And then asked them to draw pictures of the boats because I wanted to make sure that I was able to really visualize what it was that they were talking about.

And then, in February, I traveled to Ecuador and sat down with several men who had been detained aboard some of these very same Coast Guard cutters. I sat down with a bunch of these men in Ecuador, and they described for me — sitting down for hours and hour and hours — exactly what the conditions were on the boats where they were detained. And so through these many interviews and correspondence, through letters, I was really able to paint a picture of what life was like when shackled to the decks of these ships. This picture grew out of these many, many sources describing the same things. And then I was able to get a tour — an official tour — of a Coast Guard cutter that is stationed in Boston and had just returned from a trip to the Pacific Ocean where it had detained a number of men who were suspected of smuggling drugs. And what I was shown by Coast Guard officials on that boat actually directly reflected what these men had described. Different Coast Guard ships are different. In this particular ship, stationed in Boston, men were held inside of a helicopter hangar where they were shackled to pegs on the floor by chains on their ankles. In other places, men were just shackled directly to the decks, largely outside and more exposed to the elements.

Craven: You talk about speaking, or at least corresponding, with a number of former detainees who were on these cutters. What drew you to Jhonny Arcentales’ story? Why did you choose him as your main subject?

Wessler: Well, one of the first cases that I became aware of, through one of the federal defense attorneys in California, it was a case that was being tried in California. And the lawyers in that case, the defense attorneys in that case, were challenging the indictment or trying to raise the defense that, in part, discussed quite explicitly the conditions aboard a particular boat used by the U.S. government to detain suspected drug smugglers. And in the process of that case, the defense attorneys brought a group of men to California who were locked up elsewhere in the United States, and who had been detained on that same ship, to testify about the conditions that they faced. So some of the first information that I had about what it was like to be on these boats came from the transcripts of that testimony. That group of men, those were some of the men that Jhonny Arcentales was detained with. And so I wrote to this group of seven men — who were Columbian, Ecuadorian, and Guatemalan — and asked them if they would describe their experiences.

[I] received letters back from many of these men, Jhonny was one of them. He’s locked up in a federal prison in New Jersey. I arranged to visit him and sat down with him, collectively, for about seven hours on several visits to talk about what he had experienced, scribbling notes in a notebook about what he’d gone through.

One of the reasons I wanted to focus on their case was that this group of men — these seven men — were held on a series of Coast Guard and Navy boats for 70 days before they were transferred to the United States, in the conditions that I described, shackled to the decks of these ships. Really not allowed to move at all. And so the average amount of time that people are held — people are detained— is about three or four weeks. This was a case that dragged on for much longer. I’ve heard reports of cases where people have been held for three months aboard Coast Guard cutters before they’re transferred off the boats and brought to the United States, where they’re prosecuted. So, the amount of time that this group of men were held was part of the reason I wanted to focus on them, and also because so many of them wrote me back with such great detail that I was really able to reconstruct life on the boats that they were on.

Craven: Reading the story, one of the more heartbreaking moments was to see Jhonny’s relationship with the sea change very drastically. He talks about how it was once freedom, it was where he made his living. And then all of a sudden he’s out here, alone, away from the world, unable to contact his family. Can you talk a little about how you wrote the sea into this story and how you wanted to portray the sea?

Wessler: Yeah. You know, I think we imagine the sea to be an empty place. To be a great, inexplicably large, vast space where there are not people. And it turns out that that’s not true.

And we sort of know that. We see stories all the time about people migrating in the sea, about refugees in the sea, about pirates. And, now, this story about people who are smuggling drugs in the sea. But I wanted to think a bit about what it is like to be somebody who populates the sea on a regular basis, a fisherman whose whole life, whose whole livelihood, requires being out in the ocean. Where that’s a real geography of life. And so for Jhonny Arcentales and the other men in the story, that’s absolutely the case. The sea is a place, it is their livelihood. It is a place that, I think, for Jhonny, there is a lot of pride in, because he’s able to make a living for his family in the sea. And, there’s a real beauty to the kind of work that he does, and he describes it that way. It’s something, you know, when I’ve spent time with fisherman before that I hear all the time: a deep appreciation for the beauty of this geography that is the space of work.

And so I wanted to paint a picture of that and then watch as the ocean changed dramatically for him. As it moved from a place of livelihood to a place of confinement, of terror, of total isolation. He believed that he might never see his family again. And one of the, if not the most traumatic things about being detained on this boat for 70 days — being detained by the Coast Guard on a series of boats for 70 days — was that he understood that his family would believe that he was dead. And so it was terrible to be shackled to the deck of this ship, physically very uncomfortable. He was in pain, he described being hungry. But the more tormenting thing about being on the boat was thinking, constantly, about how his family was dealing with the idea that he had likely died in the sea. You know, people die in the sea. Fishermen die in the sea. These fisherman can die in the sea, there are stories of being shipwrecked, of pirates who are trying to steal gasoline killing fisherman. Of storms coming and destroying boats, making it impossible to get back. And so I think that he did assume that his family would expect that, and that sense that the people he loved most believed he was dead and had to deal with that grief, that loss, was overwhelming to him at the very same time that he wondered if he might die. He didn’t know what was going to happen to him.

Craven: Is there any better course for dealing with this issue that you’ve come across, besides just cracking down on these small-time traffickers?

Wessler: There’s not evidence that interdiction strategies, drug interdiction strategies, do much at all to stop drug use in the United States. Over the last 30 or 40 years as we’ve invested more and more money, time, manpower, military and law enforcement might to try to stop the flow of drugs out of Latin America into the United States, the price of cocaine has dropped. Cocaine usage goes up and down. There doesn’t seem to be all that much of a relationship between interdiction strategies and drug consumption in the United States.

You know, one thing that is interesting about this is that at the very same time that the Obama administration and the Obama administration’s Department of Justice was pushing for a shift away from prosecuting low-level drug crime and toward focusing on higher-level drug crime and on treatment — at the very same time that that was happening, 2011, 12, 13 — there was a shift. The Department of Defense was leading a shift to begin rounding up and then prosecuting more and more of these low-level drug smugglers in the Pacific and, to some extent, in the Caribbean. And so, there’s a bit of a disjuncture there.

Now the argument is that the raw quantity of drugs that you are able to pick up if you can stop one of these skiffs in the ocean means that you don’t have to deal with that massive cocaine breaking up into little packages, moving through Mexico, breaking up again into smaller packages and coming over the border into the United States. It is a more efficient way to stop the flow of drugs. And that’s not wrong. But the question ultimately that this story raises is, in trying to pursue that strategy of interdicting relatively large shipments of cocaine, what are the human rights consequences of doing that? Is that happening at any cost?

At the very same time that it’s not even at all clear that the strategy leads to meaningful declines in the use of cocaine in the United States.

Craven: Great. Alright. Well, thanks Seth, I appreciate the time.

Wessler: Thank you.

About the reporter

Seth Freed Wessler

Seth Freed Wessler

Seth Freed Wessler is an investigative reporter at ProPublica and a former reporting fellow at Type Investigations.