Lessons Learned From the Marijuana War

By Captain Raymond J. Brown, U.S. Coast Guard

There was more than ample precedent. The Battle of the Atlantic in World War II was such a war. Lost to memory also is that the war in the Pacific, for the two-and-one-half years after Midway, was a war of attrition. Closer to the present was a victory in the Defensive Sea Area of South Vietnam-Operation Market Time, the counter infiltration effort at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy. The many naysayers to narcotics interdiction efforts were a historical, ignorant, and frequently heeded by a surprisingly gullible news media, whose reliable sources describing the impossibility of stemming the northbound drug flow often were giving their expert testimony from prison.

Lesson #2: Bulk movement of goods is best done by sea . It always has been so. The cheapest and most efficient way to move huge quantities is always over the ocean. Nothing on the research and development horizon is going to change that. At sea is where the profit margin is highest and the trade most unlimited. Air traffic cannot compete, in either legitimate or illegitimate commodities. Where land routes are possible, they are usually a distant second choice. Of all trade that crosses frontiers, including inland, 95% is waterborne. Remarkably, there are today too many hulls worldwide for the demands of legitimate trade. We will, somewhere and someway, have to do the interdiction routine again on a large scale.

Lesson #3: Knowing the enemy came late . We were late in getting to know our enemy, the Marimberos, as they called themselves, of Colombia's north shore. This made for fruitless expenditure of planning time and resource allocation. One example that persisted for many years was the belief that sustained blue-force pressure in the Caribbean would occasion a wholesale shift of marijuana smuggling from Colombia's Atlantic coast to the Pacific. The barrier of the Andes Mountains, in addition to Colombia's river systems and roads, makes this westerly migration highly improbable. So does the sheer distance of the Pacific seaward route. Moreover, because of the smuggling, colonial, and maritime traditions of Colombia, the people look north to the Windward Passage and the Atlantic as the source of treasure. According to novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a native son of Rio Hacha (the north shore smuggling capital since the days of Sir Francis Drake), it is as though the people are ever looking up through a bottle. Though an occasional large load did proceed up the Mexican west coast, the shift to the Pacific was never a real possibility. Instead, pressure in the Caribbean had the Marimberos trying hidden compartments, then hiding specially constructed boats in the sea by color and radar profile, and finally, by proceeding more easterly. When that last option was countered, they quit. We could have discerned and reacted to each tactical change sooner if we had taken time and effort to know the adversary. There were similar vain speculations in assuming easy and rapid organizational shifts from marijuana to cocaine trade, and that internercine violence within Colombia would come to those of us at sea wearing blue. In many ways, we could have focused our efforts better and more quickly if we had known the Marimberos as well as they knew us.

Lesson #4: It is a natural tendency to exaggerate the threat in one's own area of respo nsibility. The Coast Guard has no corner on this tendency, as observation of any military or law enforcement budget deliberation will demonstrate, but it was frequently an issue in the marijuana war. Young staff officers occasionally had to tell very senior officers that not all threats are created equal-and then had to brave some heavy weather. And sometimes senior officers went at it head to head. Not infrequently, this had its humorous side. Of course, a commander ought do all that is possible to ensure that resources are available to fulfill obligations of duty. The trouble is that unwittingly crying "Wolf!" too often, however honorable and true the intention, can mean a response less than completely sympathetic when the local situation really has plummeted demonstrably. When the Marimberos dramatically altered routes in 1988, the Coast Guard was slow to perceive the change. One reason was that the most affected command had been sounding off, at all levels, for some considerable time that local circumstances were dire, underappreciated, and deteriorating. When it actually occurred, it was all too easy to say, at many levels, "This sounds a bit too familiar."

Lesson #5: Patience, resolve, and endurance are our greatest assets . The Coast Guard had them in full measure. Sea power as a weapon is foremost a method of strangulation. Though upon hearing the words sea power, the Western naval mind thinks immediately of Trafalgar, Midway, and the Philippine Sea, the real legacy and achievement lie not in those moments of glory. The capacity to keep the sea in all seasons and weathers when the opponent cannot is our true legacy at sea. We make the sea our home and stay there-and stay there, and stay there. The staying power of the Coast Guard at sea was assumed by both the sailors who did it and the political masters who sent them. That was actually a very big assumption, and one that few nations could take for granted. The service never wavered-not in bad weather, not after missed chances because of territorial seas and diplomatic imbroglios, not when the age of the cutter fleet averaged 23 years (as it indeed did for much of the decade), not when cutters operated much farther and longer than design specifications. The only times cutters were not on station as required were during various budget crises. In the first few months of 1988, in the wake of inflicting incredible losses on the Marimberos in the fall of 1987, the Coast Guard was largely in port, suddenly without operating funds for interdiction patrols. It is good that, simultaneously, the beaten smugglers were taking several months off to regroup and replan, as the seas were often virtually open. In the protracted marijuana war, patience was necessary both afloat and ashore. The campaign of attrition was long and much affected by domestic politics, which did not share the monomania of the sailor on watch. At times, resources were reallocated to competing missions. Priorities shifted quickly. And, after governmental reorganizations, establishment of new agencies, and, especially, elections, there was a continual need to educate newly appointed players, who ranged from the best and the brightest to, well, others.

Lesson #6: Shipboard command-and-control training did not keep pace with advances in boarding party and small-boat training . Over the course of the marijuana war, tremendous strides were made in ensuring the professionalism of boarding personnel. The education, training, and qualification process for the sharp end of law enforcement had resident courses and road shows aplenty. Doctrine grew and changed as necessary. This was not the case for the command-and-control team on board the deploying cutter (or, for that matter, on shore in command centers-but that's another story). One individual in each unit paid a particularly high price for this oversight. It was well known that the operations boss job in a medium-endurance cutter was the graveyard of the sea. The Coast Guard seldom has been accused of eating its young-a charge not infrequently leveled at certain other communities of the U.S. armed forces-however, it was common knowledge among those who had the operations afloat job that chances of a stalled career after completing, or perhaps just ending, an operations officer billet were good. An ops boss worked incredible hours and recognized and accepted that everything that went wrong under way was in some measure his fault. For some it was a great tour. At the height of the marijuana war it certainly could be an adrenaline rush. But there were failures, too. Coordinating multiunit seizures and concurrent search-and-rescue and law-enforcement cases, often amid concerns about territorial seas and fine points of international law, was a big job. At the same time, the ops boss might have been amending the officer-of-the-deck rotation, dealing with operations security issues, designating boarding parties and custody personnel, receiving endless queries and direction from operations control ashore, compensating for a defective radar, and dealing with handheld radios that refused to work. He had to learn all these things on the job-and he had better be a fast learner. The experience of the ops boss was never synthesized and taught during pipeline training. Recognition of the difficulty of the job came late, and the problem was never solved. Had it been, some interdiction cases would have been smoother, and some officers would have had better career prospects. We did eat some of our young.

Lesson #7: The Vietnam veterans made a real di fference. Learning from history is not the Coast Guard's strong suit. The Coast Guard is pretty parochial in remaining captive to the present moment. That a major Coast Guard interdiction campaign had been undertaken in the Defensive Sea Area of South Vietnam not too long before the drug war began in earnest seems never to have been related doctrinally to similar operations against the smuggling of narcotics. Yet the contribution of commanding officers of high- and medium-endurance cutters, who as junior officers had commanded patrol boats in Operation Market Time, was obvious. The night approaches, the navigation hazards of operations near shore in waters on which we had dubious hydrographic information, complex rules of engagement, and the seemingly interminable visit-and-search operations had built an innate, if usually unspoken (and certainly not written), expertise. The marijuana war was a long campaign, but the Vietnam veterans shortened it. And their legacy was ambient to those who followed on.

Lesson #8: Maritime intelligence is different from police files . There was an implicit assumption among many Coast Guardsmen and political masters that greater access to the Drug Enforcement Agency's intelligence files and those of other police agencies would reap a seizure harvest. That was never a realistic prospect. What intelligence a policeman needs to make a collar and achieve a conviction is very different from what a sailor needs to know to find a vessel. Moreover, landsmen do not understand ships and the sea. We were a bit slow to grasp that obvious point and horrible at explaining it to others. A seaward interdiction effort demands maritime intelligence, for which police intelligence can never be more than an ancillary help. Maritime intelligence is a world unto itself.

Lesson #9: Boat operations were underrated in difficulty and danger . Though flight-deck hazardous duty pay came into being during the marijuana war, and we knew to be wary of resistance to boardings, boat operations were the real clear and present danger to Coast Guardsmen. Boat operations always are inherently dangerous. Yet while our designed boat speeds became faster, our lowering systems became more dangerous. The rigid-hull inflatable lowering systems for both the Famous-class medium endurance cutter and the Island-class patrol boat, which came on line during the marijuana war, have caused numerous injuries and curtailed or delayed many a boarding evolution. Unfortunately, correction seems to be in the "too hard" box and probably will not receive necessary attention until disaster occurs. So far, the many sprains, twists, bruises, and unplanned dips that did and continue to occur during actual law-enforcement operations have not commanded enough attention to force an engineering solution.

Lesson #10: Maintainability and reliability carried the day . Coast Guard naval engineers have a long history of excellence and demonstrated their absolute superiority over their Guajira counterparts. Delayed sailings and breakdowns were the smuggling broker's nightmares, as he needed to add these to the possibility of blue-force interdiction in his profit/loss/credibility calculations. Accordingly, brokers would over-schedule arrivals up north to ensure supply met demand, which sometimes occasioned multiple, seemingly unrelated, Coast Guard seizures in a relatively small space and time. Moreover, many seizures occurred because a broken-down smuggler could not elude capture. A number of smuggling vessels went down with all hands, while others had crews die of dehydration and exposure while lost and adrift. The rescue efforts of the Marimberos were a good deal more professional than their preventive maintenance. Sometimes we thought the tow was a deceptive cover, when it was really an operational necessity. Though sparing no expense at constructing hidden compartments and low-profile hulls, the smugglers never learned that good engineering discipline pays off. For the Coast Guard, our naval engineers got the job done in the highest traditions of the service.

Lesson #11: In spite of operational victory at sea, management culture became ascendant service-wide . In the 1980s, law-enforcement operations had taken more than a quarter of the Coast Guard's budget. By 1990, an "unwinnable" marijuana war had been won and a generation of officers had been reared and tempered who would shortly impress the world in fleet-size rescue operations during a series of alien migration crises offshore Haiti and Cuba. Coast Guard interdiction and boarding expertise would be deployed to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, required by high command, shortly after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. But what had been tested and proved in the crucible was ignored. After victory at sea, a plethora of "quality" buzzwords about "change" and "growing the business" displaced much influence on service policy and doctrine by those who had just effected some of the most successful and grand-scale maritime operations in history. Leadership training and literature looked to quality management experts who had never been in a seaway, never taken an oath of office. There was lots of lecturing about "risk taking" by contract people (who did not take risks) to Coast Guardsmen, for whom risk had been a way of life. Rather than regard the empiricism of operational success as something to mine and treasure, the explicit message was that the service needed to shed past methods and thinking. Being an operator was still a good career ticket to punch, but more than a few of those who had been in the thick of things at sea were a bit bemused as a new cadre of "facilitators" was formed and opinion surveys became a way of life. Unfortunately, in the new managerial order of things, the marijuana war fighters demonstrated little of the courage, clarity of thought, maintenance of aim, and ingenuity that so recently had served them and the nation so well. People in the Coast Guard were the poorer for their reluctance to address either the "what" or the "how" of service doctrine.

Lesson #12: During the marijuana war, the lawyers and the diplomats of the executive branch were our friends, advocates, and enablers . Say, what? Yes, they were. For all the jokes and impatience with the grey suits, both in formulation of policy and execution of operations, Coast Guard jurisdiction continued to creep seaward to our advantage. If we needed to get on board a suspect vessel and could at all articulate the issue, more often than not, the capable folks at the State Department and the lawyers at Justice and everywhere else found a way to get us a legal entre. Our own Coast Guard legal officers and liaisons were likewise remarkably efficient in getting us into seas and on board foreign vessels and having us stay there when the legal and diplomatic hoops were particularly difficult to jump through. The extent to which certain countries surrendered sovereignty was remarkable; perhaps we realized it only toward the end, when some nation states, such as Colombia and Venezuela, began to demand more of a say with respect to their own flag vessels. Though the lawyers and diplomats spoke a different language from the sailor, and the sailor loved to hate them, they were consistently among our greatest supporters. From the State Department at Foggy Bottom to a foreign embassy on Connecticut Avenue to a command center in Miami to the darkened bridge of a cutter rolling heavily in the Guinea current to a young officer leading his charges on board a foul-smelling converted tug, the Coast Guard almost always got the timely go-ahead to continue mission. And we ought to remember that and say thanks.

The Marimberos ran up no white flag in the summer of 1990. They simply stopped coming north with grass and returned to smuggling Scotch whiskey and televisions along Colombia's north shore, ceding the North American grass market to Mexican imports and home-grown varieties. The Drug Enforcement Agency and Customs were slow to admit victory, because of both a case-minded intelligence apparatus that eschewed operational analysis and-admitted only unofficially-simple job security concerns. It took some time to convince the intelligence community that they were not being lulled and fooled. For its part, the Coast Guard quietly acknowledged marijuana victory, but did not take time to crow as cocaine air drops were defeating us and the Gulf War was beginning. However, we should learn what we can from our very recent history. Unlike the campaign during Prohibition, or against the slave trade, or the John Hancock-style smuggling that the service was founded to counter in 1790, we need not be content to let future historians debate the effectiveness of our efforts. We won, and we would do well to understand why and how. For someday and somewhere, we will have to do something very much like it again-and perhaps very soon.

Captain Brown is Chief, Operational Law Enforcement Branch, First Coast Guard District. Most recently, he was commanding officer of USCGC Escanaba (WMEC-907). During the marijuana war, he served as staff action officer in the Operational Law Enforcement Division at Coast Guard headquarters, as operations officer on the USCGC Vigorous (WMEC-627) and as chief of Analysis Division, USCGC Intelligence Coordination Center.



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