What We Need to Win the Drug War

By Commander Matt Blizard and Lieutenant Joe DiRenzo III, U.S. Coast Guard

Comprehensive Memorandum of Understanding . There are 26 different memorandums of understanding (MOUs) in effect between the U.S. government and the islands of the Antilles chain, and between the U.S. Coast Guard and federal and local agencies. Simply put, this is 25 too many.

All agencies must agree on one MOU that defines each organization's roles, coordinates duties, and sets out mutual support requirements. The Department of Defense, specifically the U.S. Navy, is the primary detection and monitoring agency. Its long-range air assets—including P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and E-2 Hawkeye early warning aircraft under the tactical control of Joint Interagency Task Force East (JIATFEast)—need to be meshed with Coast Guard, Customs, and local police department air assets. A comprehensive MOU would do this, clearly defining search areas and targets.

A solid foundation already has been laid. Weekly air coordination meetings have led to a voluntary U.S. interagency effort to ensure total air coverage of smuggling routes. The Coast Guard also has led operations such as Caribe Venture, which includes not only U.S. assets but also French Customs and Navy authorities, the British Virgin Islands Drug Squad, the Dutch and British navies, and the Regional Securities Systems Coast Guards. Another recent success, Operation Frontier Lance meshed the U.S. Coast Guard with Haitian and Dominican Republic law enforcement and military organizations.

Included in the same MOU needs to be a provision to allow the entry of any counternarcotics asset into any signatory's territorial air and seas. Too often, we have been frustrated by narcotics smugglers who flee to the territorial seas of countries that have no signed agreement. It must cover actions allowed (i.e., detection, interdiction, shipriders, detention, disposition, and arrest) and other issues such as extradition, migrant interdiction, and asset sharing (i.e., revenue from seizures). One way to secure a workable MOU is through concurrent notification. If a drug chase is in progress, counternarcotics forces can enter another nation's territorial seas or air space with concurrent notification, where the nation is notified as soon as is feasible after any entry occurs.

With a comprehensive command center in San Juan and daily contact with all agencies and governments, the Coast Guard is well suited to coordinate this effort. All national sovereignty concerns, however, need to be addressed through established diplomatic channels.

Greater Legal and Judicial Enforcement . The penalties for drug trafficking must be increased significantly—including confinement at hard labor—with no hope for parole. Traffickers and their backers must face speedy trial and quick sentencing in all countries, and smugglers should be forced to forfeit all assets—including assets from abroad—once convicted. Demanding that apprehended drug traffickers prove the legitimacy of funds used to provide a legal defense also is an appropriate tactic.

There should be a groundswell of support for this proposal, especially considering the 1998 National Drug Control Strategy's focus on the cost of the drug trade to children. The report notes that "a 16-year-old addict is a $2 million tax liability."

Increased/More Appropriate Sensors . Sensor packages must get better if we are to have any chance against an enemy that has every new technology. To accomplish this, the governments of the Caribbean, the European Union, and the United States must pool resources and fund research and development to increase the sensitivity and capability of current surface and air detection assets.

For example, the APS-137 radar with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) attachment now used by the U.S. Coast Guard's C-130s should be on additional aircraft. That sensor package can find 25-foot boats laden with narcotics. Another alternative is the inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR) package used on U.S. Navy P-3s and the sensor package on the Customs Caribbean Air Branch Nomads.

The sensor package used on surface ships also needs to be upgraded, to detect small, "go-fast" vessels and the low freeboard craft built exclusively for smuggling. A better nighttime thermal capability, coupled with an enhanced radar, will help to defeat traffickers. For example, telescopic night vision goggles would increase the detectability of contacts, as would the APS-137/FLIR combination. Another possible sensor is the thermal imaging device.

The final sensor type that needs to be in place is landbased radar capable of detecting air and surface contacts. For the past three years, the pros and cons of a relocatable over-the-horizon radar along Puerto Rico's south coast looking toward South America have been debated. Unfortunately, local interest groups are opposing this effort and have slowed progress. Four other land-based sites—Dutch/French owned St. Martin, French Martinique, St. Vincent, and the east coast of Trinidad and Tobago—would be imperative for effective detection.

Improved Interagency/Intergovernment Cooperation . There are seven command centers with responsibility for the Caribbean. The French have one in Martinique, JIATFEast has one in Key West, some of the Antilles countries have one, and the Coast Guard has one in San Juan. This overlap requires resolution.

The 1994 National Interdiction Command-and-Control Plan established three regional JIATFs. These have important functions in the western Caribbean and eastern Pacific, but the unique nature of operations in the eastern Caribbean, with its numerous countries and interests, suggests that command and control should be based in San Juan, not Key West. Infrastructure for a regional Caribbean command center already is in place at the Coast Guard's Greater Antilles Section (GAntSec);. three other key requirements would be:

  • Subregion command centers in Trinidad and Tobago, Martinique, and St. Martin (Dutch), each responsible for an area of the Caribbean. For example, the St. Martin site would cover Anguilla, Monserrat, Antigua, Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis; the Trinidad center would handle Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia; and the Martinique site would cover Guadeloupe, Dominica, and St. Bart's. These centers would have communications equipment and radar feeds from land-based radars and would be jointly manned by representatives of the Antilles Islands. the U.S. Coast Guard. and/or DoD and the European Union. An officer from one of the Antilles countries, who is mutually agreed upon, would become deputy commander, in charge of the subregion command center.
  • A joint interagency/intergovernment intelligence cell that fuses area intelligence, especially human intelligence, and provides it to the subregion command center for asset placement and end-game strategy. The U.S. high-intensity drug trafficking area (HIDTA) system, which fuses federal and local agencies in the Caribbean, could be a model.
  • A common set of coordination procedures. The MOU that provides guidance for air and surface interdiction from U.S. Coast Guard assets could be expanded for the entire area of responsibility.

Enhanced Communications Ability . Incompatibility of communications equipment has been cited time and again in lessons-learned messages. The solution is not simple, but a communications plan should include:

  • Communications survey. This would identify "dead zones"—areas in the Caribbean where communications, especially very high frequency (VHF) and high frequency (HF), are extremely poor—and allow for solutions.
  • Common hardware. The Antilles Coast Guard and just about every U.S. agency has a different system. Common standards for high frequency and ultra high frequency (UHF) communications equipment are required.
  • Common frequencies. An initial communications matrix, used in Operation Caribe Venture, needs to be expanded to include agreed upon frequencies for all units.
  • Redundant systems. Many Antilles countries rely on a single HF or VHF site. If it goes down, command, control, and communications capabilities are severely reduced.
  • Communications security. There needs to be a basic encryption system for HF, UHF, VHF, and cell phone communications. GAntSec's initatives on secure telephone installations for land-line communications should continue to be expanded.
  • Repeater network. We need to link countries in each subregion with a HF/UHF network.

Enhanced Intelligence Sharing . A joint tactical intelligence center needs to be created that would work directly with the regional command center. The center would have a very narrow mission—the development of tactical intelligence. Long-range case prosecution would remain the purview of the individual countries.

Led by the Coast Guard, the joint tactical intelligence center would receive information and provide it to the subregional command centers for endgame coordination with the continued support of the El Paso Intelligence Center, the National Drug Intelligence Center, and the Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

The sharing of information between governments would be a fundamental change. We have seen walls come down between agencies because of the HIDTA concept. This idea could be expanded to include the international community. For example, asset sharing would "reward" countries that pass intelligence leading to interdictions and property forfeiture.

Increased Asset Sharing and Coordination . Too often there are too few assets to use all the intelligence data developed. Three steps will help improve this situation:

  • Antilles chain countries would coordinate the sharing of their limited resources. As provided by a MOU, St. Kitts forces would patrol their subregion without regard to territorial seas. In addition, countries could team up to have radio guards. For example, St. Kitts and Antigua could share a seven-day work week. Both would be responsible to the subregion command center, but the number of personnel required would be minimal. In Puerto Rico, the Coast Guard, Customs, and local police would coordinate who was patrolling, when, and where.
  • Both the Dutch and British West Indies Guardship need to focus their patrols within the Antilles chain. This would require DoD to provide JIATFEast with additional assets to cover the western Caribbean.
  • The Dutch and British would commit additional air assets to the Eastern Caribbean—a Dutch P-3 to be based in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, along with a British Nimrod designated for Eastern Caribbean operations. With transparent territorial seas, these aircraft could fly in and out of all islands in the chain, coordinating with the Coast Guard and Customs Caribbean Air Branch.

Cohesive Political Support . Each country's political leadership must put defeat of drug smugglers at the top of their agendas, and then energize the support of the people and fund the services to the best of their abilities.

Comprehensive Efforts against Corruption . Recently, four police officers in Puerto Rico and several on the island of Vieques were arrested for providing maritime drug smugglers armed protection. Events such as this create distrust of authority among the people and could undermine combined counterdrug efforts.

Increased Special Operations . Over the past three years, the U.S. Coast Guard in San Juan has taken huge steps toward transparent interoperability between forces:

  • Sudden Impact. A coordinated operation between Coast Guard law enforcement detachments (LEDets), U.S. Customs, and the local Puerto Rican police department's Forces United for Rapid Action. LEDets accompany Customs Marine Enforcement Officer fast interceptors as boarding team members, supplementing Customs officials.
  • Sweet Scent. This operation joined U.S. and Canadian Customs, Coast Guard, and other agencies to test and evaluate ion-scanner systems used to detect cocaine. Halcon. A very successful operation between the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs Caribbean Air Branch, the U.S. Border Patrol, and the Dominican Navy. These operations routinely shut down migrant smuggling between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, enhance coordination and communications, and develop long-lasting support.
  • Frontier Lance. An operation that joined Dominican Republic and Haitian law enforcement in a coordinated effort with the U.S. Coast Guard. It involved ship riders, joint command centers, and increased interoperability, and provided a foundation for continued operations.

These types of operations would be expanded under the grand strategy. The countries within the Antilles chain, for example, could pool their resources to crew patrol boats, and Anguilla Marine Police could mix crews with the Dutch patrol boat out of St. Martin.

Comprehensive, Coordinated Professional Exchange Programs . The final stage of the grand drug strategy would be a strong commitment of resources (both money and personnel) by the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France. Such commitments would go hand-in-glove with professional exchanges between the local Coast Guards and Marine Police of these countries and the United States. This is happening now but not on a formal basis.

The former U.S. Navy base on Antigua, now home to the Antigua and Barbuda Defense Force, is an ideal location for a full-time regional training facility, which both DoD and the U.S. Coast Guard could help coordinate. The Coast Guard should continue its aids-to-navigation efforts to develop a channel at this facility for patrol boat entry.

Training would need to be coordinated by the Coast Guard liaison at the embassy in Barbados and its Technical Assistance Facility Team, the British Military Assistance Training Teams, the U.S. Department of Defense's Tradewinds, and the International Affairs Office at Coast Guard Headquarters. There needs to be special consideration given to short (train the trainer) and long (mentoring) in-country assistance.

Commander Blizard , a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, is commanding officer of the Coast Guard Master Communications Station Atlantic. Previously, he served as operations officer for the Greater Antilles Section.  Lieutenant DiRenzo m a frequent contributor to Proceedings , is a 982 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and 1996 graduate of the Naval War College. He is commanding officer of the USCGC Jefferson Island (WPB-1340), and previously was Chief of Intelligence for the Greater Antilles Section.


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