If you've followed the War on Terror at all, you're almost certainly familiar with the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — a US prison that exists outside the realm of the US justice system.

Now, it turns out, there's a secret US detention system in the War on Drugs, too — and this one is aboard US Coast Guard cutters sailing in the Pacific Ocean.

In an effort to stanch 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 US 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 US shores, but some of the worst cases are drawing criticism even from Coast Guard officials.

Seth Freed Wessler reported this story for The Times. He says a combination of US agreements with Latin American countries and the US Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act allows the US to take this action. Wessler spoke with The World's Carol Hills about his reporting and these "floating Guantánamos" on the Pacific Ocean.

It is. The Coast Guard has a broad mission. It does search and rescue, enforces fisheries laws. It enforces drug laws on the oceans and, what few people know, is that the US Coast Guard has actually been deployed in recent years deep into the Pacific Ocean to interdict drug smugglers moving between South America — Colombia, Ecuador — and Central America, where the drugs — often cocaine — are dropped off and then often moved up through Mexico. These Coast Guard ships are deployed deep into the Pacific —sometimes thousands of miles from the nearest US port, where they're detaining suspected smugglers and holding them aboard these Coast Guard cutters. What I found in my reporting is that detainees, men who are moving cocaine in the Pacific Ocean. 

He is a fisherman from a coastal town in Ecuador and was having a particularly, economically, rough year and made a decision to take a job smuggling cocaine off of the coast of Ecuador. He really didn't know all that much about what he was doing.

As he was moving this cocaine on a boat with three other men, another Ecuadorian man and a Colombian man, they were approaching Central America, approaching Guatemala and the US Navy and Coast Guard intercepted that boat and pulled these men off. For the next 70 days, Mr. Arcentales and the other man he was detained with were held — always chained by their ankle to the deck of a ship or to a cable running along one of these large Coast Guard or Navy ships — for 70 days. He was moved from ship to ship as these Coast Guard cutters went about their patrols, picking up more cocaine in the Pacific Ocean. 

San Lorenzo, Ecuador, near Jhonny’s departure point. 

Glenna Gordon/Courtesy of The New York Times

The Coast Guard makes the argument that these people are not formally under arrest until they get to the United States. They're simply being held, while the Coast Guard deals with the logistical challenges of trying to get these men onto shore — into an airplane and flown to Florida, where they'll be prosecuted. 

Courts have generally bought the government's argument. The argument by the Coast Guard and by federal prosecutors that these logistical delays are legitimate, as it's hard enough to get people back. The reality is that when the Coast Guard has had to move people more quickly, they do. Very often, detainees are brought to port in one of these cutters, then placed in a hidden room in a helicopter hangar or in a room below deck and hidden there for the day while the Coast Guard cutter refuels or the Coast Guard crew get a bit of a break and then are brought back out to sea.

So there are these delays that people in the Coast Guard — Coast Guard officials I interviewed — though really are actually unreasonable, considering that they're near an airport. Somebody could be put on a plane and brought back to the United States. As we've made this decision to prosecute more and more people, these delays have grown longer and longer. 

What we're seeing now is sort of carting people around ... carting suspected drug smugglers around the ocean an average of 18 days — very often longer than that — as the government waits to transport people to courts in Florida. 

A picture of the USCG National Security Cutter Bertholf.

United States Department of Homeland Security 

Well, John Kelly was in charge of Southern Command, the Department of Defense area of operation in Latin America that's in charge of managing the drug war in Latin America. He was the head of Southern Command between 2012 and 2016 then retired. Under the Trump administration, he became head of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard.

On two occasions he has had a role in these operations. And John Kelly has really been a proponent of the idea. He's called drug smuggling in Central America an existential threat to the United States. And the idea that we need to push our borders outward farther and farther away from our actual borders in order to defend the homeland, that's led to this effort to interdict drugs far, far away from the United States in places where drug smugglers actually really have very little idea where their drugs are headed. So, Johnny Arcentales and the other men that I've spoken to know, they're not thinking about where these drugs are going. The drugs are moving from South America to Central America as far as they're concerned. It's out of their control after that, but we're arresting people in international waters, often on foreign boats, thousands of miles from the United States. 

Ultimately, most of the cocaine on these smugglers' small boats is probably headed for the United States. But some of it may be going to other markets, to European markets, to Australian markets or elsewhere. It's not always clear that the drugs are coming here and, in fact, the circuit court in California has said that the US can't prosecute these cases unless they can prove that the drugs were headed to the United States — that they actually intended to to show up there. And that's one of the reasons why federal prosecutors prefer to bring these cases to Florida, where that burden of proof is not required. 

He was picked up in September of 2014. And for the next 70 days, he was held aboard a series of Coast Guard cutters and Navy frigates as he was moved around the Pacific Ocean. He describes the experience of feeling like he really might disappear.  

He didn't know that he was going to be brought to the United States, wasn't being allowed to call his family — wondering, "does my family think I died?" He was ultimately brought to shore in Central America and told "you're going to be handed over to the Drug Enforcement Administration now" and brought to the United States to face prosecution after more than two months held aboard these ships. 

He was brought to the United States, charged criminally under drug trafficking laws and was sentenced to 10 years to a decade in federal prison. He's now in a federal prison in New Jersey. 

The community he comes from on the central coast of Ecuador, many men have left on these smuggling trips. More than a year ago, there was a major earthquake in Ecuador that left families in dire economic straits. Since then, there have been more and more people leaving. In fact, his son-in-law decided not long after that earthquake to take one of these jobs and left home. He didn't tell anyone and disappeared. Days later, was picked up by the Coast Guard. He was also sentenced to a decade in US federal prison. 

The question about the legality of the US Coast Guard's detention practices has not been raised, in an international context, in criminal courts. In the United States, when defense attorneys have tried to argue that the conditions amount to inhumane treatment, some cases judges have agreed. But they've said there's nothing we can really do about it. The law does not allow for us to throw this case out. 

This is a practice of detention that until now hasn't really been known. 

I wrote to dozens of men and received letters back from many of these men who'd been detained on these Coast Guard ships, describing the conditions of their confinement. Describing what sounded to me like real terror for them on the high seas. Those are stories that hadn't been told before. 

No the bathrooms on these boats are very different, ship to ship. They're provided essentially buckets to use as toilets on some of the boats. And these men are then required to clean out the buckets themselves and dump them off the edge of the ship. They describe that as a really terrible disgusting process. And the Coast Guard says "our ships aren't equipped as detention centers. We don't have facilities here. This is what we've got."

In fact, I spoke to Coast Guard commanders who are really uncomfortable about the conditions on their ship — and uncomfortable about the amount of time people are held. 

I have evidence of people being held for upwards of 70 days. A Coast Guard official told me people have been held for 90 days. But the Coast Guard has no clear rules about how long they can hold people. 

Many of the Coast Guard officials that I talked to were really uncomfortable about the detention conditions and the amount of time that people were being held during their detention. I really felt that officials thought people need to be moved off the boats more quickly and, again, are uncomfortable about the conditions that they have to hold people in. 

Yes. Many families, in fact, believe that their loved ones — husbands, fathers, sons — had disappeared. It's not unheard of for fishermen to disappear in the sea. 

For these fishermen, the ocean is the geography of their life. And so when I talked to Arcentales, for example, about the sea, he said to me "the ocean used to be a place that for me represented freedom. But now it's like a prison in the open ocean."

And all of these men say "we understand that we've broken laws. We understand that we made these decisions. We understand that we're going to be punished for this." The question that they raise is "how are we in the United States right now?"

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI