A small, unassuming boat washed up on a remote island in the Pacific last week carrying no passengers – but loaded with around 1,430 pounds (649 kg) of cocaine.
The 18-foot (5.4-meter) fiberglass vessel was discovered on a beach at Ailuk Atoll in the Marshall Islands, a chain of coral atolls and volcanic islands between the Philippines and Hawaii.
The cocaine came sealed and wrapped in blocks, according to the Marshall Islands police, who then collected and destroyed most of the packages by burning them in an incinerator. Photos of the blocks show stained, yellowing plastic, stamped with a red logo that bears the letters “KW.”
One resident on Ailuk, which is home to around 400 people, discovered the boat last week, according to CNN affiliate Radio New Zealand. The vessel was too heavy for residents to lift onto the beach – so they investigated the inside, where a large compartment under the deck revealed the bricks of cocaine.
The residents notified the authorities, and police brought the drugs back to the capital of Majuro, on another island. This week, police brought the cocaine to the incinerator; only 4.4 pounds (2 kg) were saved for the US Drug Enforcement Agency to conduct laboratory analysis, authorities said.
In total, the haul is worth an estimated $80 million, according to RNZ – and is the largest amount of cocaine to ever wash onto the Marshall Islands.
Authorities said they believed the boat had drifted over from South or Central America, and could have been at sea for one or two years.
This may be one of the biggest drug hauls, but it’s certainly not the first; islands in the Pacific are on a major international drug trafficking route, and numerous drug packages have previously been seized or discovered in the Marshall Islands.
A resident found nearly 40 pounds (18 kg) of cocaine in 2016, and was arrested for not immediately handing it to police; a fisherman reeled in 105 pounds (48 kg) of suspected cocaine in 2018; just this year, police suspect a supply of cocaine may have washed up on Maloelap Atoll and contributed to an explosion in drug use and drug-related health complications.
Many of the packages that wash up are professionally wrapped; sometimes residents take the drugs instead of reporting them, fueling widespread drug availability and use. The problem has escalated so much this year that the Marshall Islands parliament established a drug task force in May as part of a larger crackdown effort.