Marshall Islands police have destroyed over 635 kilogrammes of cocaine after the cache of drugs drifted into a remote atoll.
Police said the discovery last week was the largest volume of cocaine to ever wash into the Marshall Islands, which has seen hundreds of kilos of cocaine found near multiple islands over the past two decades. The drug haul has an estimated street value of over $US80 million.
"A local resident on Ailuk discovered a boat with 649 one-kilogram bricks of cocaine," said Attorney General Richard Hickson, who praised community members at Ailuk for immediately notifying law enforcement about the drug discovery.
At times, cocaine wash-ups on remote islands were not reported and instead people filtered the drugs into Majuro for sale to the urban population.
Earlier this year an Ailuck man was arrested and convicted after he attempted to transport three kilogrammes of cocaine from the northern atoll to Majuro on an Air Marshall Islands flight. He confirmed to authorities that more drugs washed in at Ailuk, possibly over a year ago.
Richard Hickson said the latest haul of cocaine was not related to that earlier prosecution of the drug courier.
"This is a new lot of cocaine, just arrived," he added.
Ailuk resident, Kosby Alfred, last week discovered a boat that washed up on Ailuk. The atoll is 244 miles north of the capital Majuro with a population of about 400 people.
When islanders could not lift the boat out of the water onto the beach, they investigated to find out why the fiberglass boat was so heavy.
They discovered a large compartment under the deck that had been sealed to hide hundreds of one-kilo "bricks" of cocaine wrapped in plastic and stamped with the initials "KW," said Marshall Islands Police Department's Criminal Investigation chief Captain Vincent Tani.
The 18-foot boat contained 649 one-kilo packages, said Tani.
After discovery of the drugs, Ailuk's Acting Mayor, Redner Alfred, called authorities in Majuro who quickly dispatched MIPD's Lomor patrol vessel to the northern atoll. There, police officers boxed and bagged the 649 bricks of cocaine and headed back to Majuro, arriving Monday in the capital. On Tuesday, more than a dozen police officers and detectives opened the locked hold of the patrol vessel, filled the backs of two police pickup trucks with boxes and bags filled with cocaine packages, and drove straight from the dock to a local company that operates an incinerator to dispose of the drugs.
Marshall Islands police work with the US Drug Enforcement Agency when they discover cocaine washed up. DEA officials requested police provide them with two kilogrammes of the latest haul for laboratory analysis, Majuro authorities said.
"We are incinerating 647 bricks and saving two for the DEA," said Criminal Investigation Division Lt. Carney Terry.
Both Tani and Terry said they estimated that the largest previous find of cocaine was around 40 kilogrammes.
Numerous other islands, including Enewetak, Rongelap, Bikini, Kwajalein, Likiep and Mili have seen multi-kilo bundles of cocaine wash up over the past two decades.
Law enforcement officials have various theories about the drugs washing up: they are the result of drug transshipment operations gone awry due, for example, to the loss of a radio beacon attached to the drugs, were tossed overboard when drug runners were in danger of discovery by law enforcement authorities, or drug runners were caught in a storm or experienced engine problems resulting in their drifting west from their starting point in South or Central America.
In 2014, El Salvadoran fisherman Jose Alvarenga drifted for 14 months from the Mexican coast before washing up on Ebon Atoll in the southern Marshall Islands.
After his discovery at Ebon, University of Hawaii researchers conducted 16 computer simulations of drift patterns from the Mexico coast using weather and ocean data during the period of the fisherman's drift and nearly all of drift patterns arrived in the Marshall Islands.
The fiberglass boat discovered at Ailuk was similar to two other boats carrying plastic wrapped kilo packages of cocaine that washed ashore in two different atolls several years ago, said Tani.
"All three boats had three stars on them," he said.
Aside from the stars, each boat had a different marking. The boat found at Ailuk last week had a variation of the Nike "swoosh" painted on its side. One of the earlier boats had a dolphin, said Tani.
Tani and Hickson both said they believed the boat drifted into the Marshall Islands from South or Central America.
"It could have been drifting for a year or two," said Hickson.