High "Seize" Maritime Interdiction Works!

By Rear Admiral James D. Hull, U.S. Coast Guard, and Lieutenant Commander Michael D. Emerson, U.S. Coast Guard

The challenges at our maritime borders extend well beyond the menace of drug traffic and will become more varied and complex in the first decades of the 21st century. Environmental damage and rapid population growth undermine economic prosperity and political stability in many countries. Terrorism, illegal migrants, organized crime, drugs, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are global concerns that transcend national borders. The emergence of alien migrant smuggling through Central and South America, high seas drift-net fishing, and recurrent violations of New England fisheries restrictions are other more subtle threats.

Because these challenges to America's maritime security are not strictly military in nature, they underscore the importance, relevance, and vitality of the Coast Guard's law-enforcement role—a core competency developed during more than 200 years of the Coast Guard's service to the United States.

Illegal drugs likely will become more difficult to counter as global and regional drug cartels increasingly use advanced equipment and technology. By using relatively small, fast, evasive boats; aircraft; and sophisticated counter-information technologies, drug cartels will challenge law-enforcement organizations with greater daring and boldness. These challenges will increase demands for expanded Coast Guard interdiction operations along U.S. maritime borders.

In his letter transmitting the 1998 National Drug Control Strategy to Congress, President Bill Clinton affirmed, "We must close the door on drugs at our borders." Goals 4 and 5 of the National Strategy demand "in-depth" interdiction operations to "shield air, land, and sea frontiers" and "break foreign and domestic sources of supply." As the lead agency for maritime interdiction, the Coast Guard shares lead agency responsibilities for air interdiction in the Transit Zone with the U.S. Customs Service. As such, the Coast Guard has a clear mandate to shut down and dominate the easy routes of access and to increase the effectiveness of maritime interdiction and improve results against drug trafficking.

Drug trafficking and violence, according to the Strategy, go hand in hand. Drug imports are associated with high crime and uncontrolled exports of national revenue. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the illicit drug trade drains our economy of approximately $67 billion each year. In a 1996 Gallup Poll, "Consult with America: A Look at How Americans View the Country's Drug Problem," Americans emphatically stated that the drug problem is a high priority for their tax dollars, as more than 80% of Americans surveyed identified violent crime (84%) and drugs (82%) as the two most pressing problems in our society. In an October 1997 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 87% of the respondents said that a major goal of the government should be to increase efforts to fight crime and drugs. The effects of drug availability on our society are devastating:

  • Increased crime in our cities. Assault and property crimes by addicts desperate to support their habits, as well as violence related to drug-trafficking organizations protecting their operations and sources of cash flow.
  • Substantial economic costs. Lessened productivity of drug users and increased medical expenses related to drug abuse, not only for drug users but also for infants born to addicted mothers. Enormous costs for law enforcement, courts, prisons, and rehabilitation at the federal, state, and local levels.
  • Substantial social costs. Destruction of family units affected by drug abuse. Creation and support of cultures of drug trafficking organizations that live entirely outside the bounds of the law.
  • Adverse international effects. Virtually all countries touched. Problems may be exported to the United States (e.g. illegal immigration). Enormous destabilizing effects on the culture, society, and government of foreign cities and countries, as evidenced by widespread poverty and frequent murder of judicial and governmental officials.

These effects and costs show that drug trafficking is a direct and substantial threat to the national security of the United States.

The "Transit Zone" as a Challenge

The transit zone for drug traffic from South America is a six-million square-mile area that includes the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Eastern Pacific. Its sheer size presents a formidable challenge to interdiction efforts, which must be overcome to achieve our objectives. The task of maintaining a comprehensive overview of activity—and sorting targets of interest from legitimate air and surface traffic—is daunting. Equally difficult is the logistical challenge of supporting our forces in such an expansive theater of operations, particularly in the Eastern Pacific. We need a comprehensive maritime hemisphere awareness and the capability to detect, control, and engage drug smugglers on and above the sea.

In 1997, an estimated 430 metric tons of cocaine, 13 metric tons of heroin, significant quantities of marijuana, and smaller amounts of other illicit substances passed through the transit zone. An estimated 57% of all cocaine enters the United States by crossing the border from Mexico, but much of that amount travels through the Caribbean to get to Mexico. Most of the remainder enters directly via the Caribbean. Noncommercial maritime traffic, in the form of small coastal freighters, fishing vessels, and "go-fast" boats, currently accounts for 60-70% of the total flow. This represents an increasing trend toward noncommercial maritime trafficking means. Further, capabilities such as radar-evading boats and aircraft and sophisticated counter information on technologies will enable drug cartels to challenge current law-enforcement capabilities.

The evasiveness of "go-fast" traffickers is a case in point. "Go-fast" vessels are difficult to detect and stop because of their low profiles and high maneuverability. The Commandant has authorized the use of force, including warning shots and disabling fire, to stop these boats at a significantly higher rate than ever before. Coast Guard and foreign assets have fired at "go-fast" suspects on seven occasions this past year, managing to successfully stop and seize two of them.

Joint Interagency Task Force East (JIATF East) recently conducted an analysis of drug-smuggling events in the eastern Pacific that highlighted missed interdiction opportunities and the need for response capability. Of 16 known events in 1997, there were three successful interdictions that resulted in the seizure of approximately 22 metric tons of cocaine. JIATF East had prior intelligence on five other events that were not interdicted and resulted in the successful delivery of an estimated 37 metric tons of cocaine. There were no assets available to prosecute these cases.

Interdiction in the transit and arrival zones disrupts drug flow, increases risks to traffickers, drives them to less efficient routes and methods, and prevents significant amounts of drugs from reaching the United States. The long-term denial of maritime trafficking routes is part of the strategy to reduce availability of illicit drugs and sustain a favorable environment for successful demand-reduction efforts.

In addition to seizing drugs and arresting traffickers, Coast Guard drug-interdiction efforts yield substantial intelligence and information that allow the pursuit and targeting of larger drug-trafficking organizations, both foreign and domestic. Our thorough program of post-seizure analysis yields information and intelligence that is of substantial law-enforcement interest outside interdiction. This information is shared with other local, state, federal, and international agencies with a law-enforcement interest and need to know. The Coast Guard is a critical link in meeting the goals of our National Drug Control Strategy.

The National Drug Control Strategy specifically tasks the Coast Guard to conduct flexible operations to detect, disrupt, deter, and seize illegal drugs in transit to the United States and at U.S. borders. The Strategy aims to reduce the rate at which illegal drugs that enter the transit and arrival zones successfully enter the United States by 10% by the year 2002. The goal is a 20% reduction in this rate by 2007. The Coast Guard is obligated to improve cooperation and effectiveness of law enforcement, to improve bilateral and regional cooperation, and to support and highlight research and technology.

A Steel Web Against Drugs

Steel Web is the Coast Guard's multiyear campaign plan to position the requisite interdiction forces where they best counter the ever-evolving narco-trafficking threat. The strategic concept is to deny drug smugglers access to maritime routes, with interdiction forces concentrated in the high-threat areas of the Caribbean and eastern Pacific to disrupt drug traffic significantly. Coast Guard operations in these areas complement and support JIATF East and JIATF West operations. Once a credible law-enforcement presence is established, interdiction forces will be redeployed to other high-threat areas, leaving an enhanced presence to deter and interdict subsequent smuggling. Ultimately, successful pulse operations in each high-threat area will systematically reduce drug flow through the transit zone. The Coast Guard's Operations Frontier Shield and Frontier Lance successfully demonstrated this concept. The increased funding to achieve national goals included in the fiscal year 1998 budget is an overwhelming endorsement for the value of interdiction.

Operation Frontier Shield was introduced in fiscal year 1997 in the maritime approaches to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. This region was the second-largest gateway (behind the U.S. southwest border with Mexico) for drugs entering the United States, and provided an opportunity to create an immediate and measurable impact. Frontier Shield succeeded because of the synergy of effort from the coalition of interagency and international law enforcement agencies involved in the operation.

During fiscal year 1997, Frontier Shield forces seized 23 vessels transporting 31,127 pounds of cocaine, arrested more than 100 suspects, and disrupted 17 additional deliveries of an estimated 37,400 pounds of cocaine. In sum, interdiction forces cut smuggler success rates through the eastern Caribbean in half and prevented more than 310 million doses of cocaine from crossing our maritime borders. The combined street value of Frontier Shield seizures and disruptions is more than $2.4 billion.

By interagency estimates, Frontier Shield forces reduced direct flow of cocaine to Puerto Rico by 46%. Smugglers have abandoned these maritime routes in favor of new routes to the west. In 1997, Coast Guard interdiction rates and seizure rates were at record levels—roughly 3 times higher than levels in 1996. In addition, Coast Guard multimission assets interdicted 2,400 illegal migrants and turned away an additional 545 migrants.

Operation Frontier Shield demonstrates the tangible positive effects of interdiction in Puerto Rico. In 1991, drug related crime was down 37% from the year before, and the governor no longer needed the Puerto Rico National Guard to maintain order in certain housing areas. On the streets of San Juan, cocaine purity went down, and street prices rose nearly 36% during 1997.

In 1998, we conducted Operation Frontier Lance—a limited pulse operation along the southern coast of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. These countries have emerged as a high-threat area for "go-fast" smuggling because of their proximity to Colombia (one-day transit); the number of remote offload sites; and the success we have had in Operation Frontier Shield off the coast of Hispaniola, which forced smugglers to change their routes. Currently, estimates indicate that 15% of the cocaine bound for the United States flows through this region, and that the south coast receives more than 40 "go-fast" deliveries a year—each carrying 600-700 kilograms of cocaine.

Frontier Lance was a short-term proof-of-concept operation designed to demonstrate our ability to stage an interagency operation from foreign soil and to test various interdiction assets. After seven continuous quarters of increasing flow, early intelligence assessments confirmed a dramatic decrease in direct movement of cocaine to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Defense Intelligence Agency attributed the temporary decline to the presence of Frontier Lance forces around Haiti.

Working with Others

To broaden the impact of our Steel Web efforts, the Coast Guard is actively involved in numerous joint operations with other agencies. With oversight from the U.S. Interdiction Coordinator, the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, and other law-enforcement agencies work in concert with the support of the Department of Defense. The JIATFs and the Domestic Air Interdiction Coordination Center coordinate these efforts. The most notable interagency cooperative effort involves the deployment of Coast Guard Law-Enforcement Detachments aboard U.S. Navy ships to provide end-game law enforcement authority.

Coast Guard's longstanding relationship with many Caribbean countries is equally important to the sustained success of supply-reduction efforts. The Coast Guard conducts frequent combined operations with military and law enforcement organizations of many of these nations. In addition, Coast Guard law-enforcement detachments deploy aboard British and Dutch warships involved in counterdrug operations, which promotes cooperation with our international partners in the effort to control the flow of drugs.

Coast Guard officers also are pivotal members of Department of State-led interagency units that are negotiating a series of bilateral maritime counternarcotics agreements with foreign governments to enable interdiction forces to work more effectively and efficiently with them. A tribute to the success of these efforts is the recent signing of bilateral maritime counterdrug agreements with the governments of Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica, and the United Kingdom. Over the past several years, the United States has signed agreements with several other transit-zone nations. These agreements augment the effectiveness of our cutters by reducing the time they spend waiting for authorization either to board suspect vessels or to enter the territorial seas of signatory nations in pursuit of suspect vessels. Our Caribbean neighbors are working with us to deny safe havens to drug smugglers who routinely violate the national sovereignty of these nations.

The Coast Guard also supports South American initiatives aimed at stopping the flow of drugs at the source. We deploy air-interdiction aircraft to support the U.S. Southern Command's Operation Laser Strike, and provide personnel from the Coast Guard International Training Division to perform assessments and conduct riverine law enforcement in key source countries. As source-country initiatives further disrupt the activities of the trafficking organizations, our interdiction efforts in the transit zone will have even more effect on the flow of drugs into the United States.

The multimission Coast Guard traditionally has provided a high rate of return. In fiscal year 1997, overall interdiction efforts resulted in a record year for Coast Guard drug seizures: 103,617 pounds of cocaine and 102,538 pounds of marijuana products. Cocaine seizures easily surpassed the previous record of 90,335 pounds, set in 1991. Interdiction accomplishments in fiscal year 1998 included seizure of 75 vessels transporting 82,623 pounds of cocaine and 31,390 pounds of marijuana products. The 1998 numbers were expected to be lower because of the deterrent effects of the ongoing law-enforcement presence, which changed flow patterns. The increased interdiction resources in the fiscal year 1999 budget will expand law-enforcement presence and provide high seizure rates in other high-threat areas of the transit zone.

Through effective interdiction efforts in 1997, the Coast Guard kept more than 468 million cocaine "hits" and 100 million marijuana "joints" off of our streets, preventing those drugs from poisoning schools and destroying homes. The estimated street value of these seizures is more than $4.2 billion—$1 billion more than the Coast Guard's entire 1997 discretionary budget.

To meet its obligations under the National Drug Control Strategy, the Coast Guard will need the full support of Congress. The Coast Guard must be responsive to the established policy priorities of the President, the well articulated will of Congress, and the demands of the U.S. people. Campaign Steel Web identifies what the Coast Guard needs to comply with its legal mandates and to be responsive to presidential policy under the National Drug Control Strategy.

The Coast Guard received a $34.3 million increase in budget authority for fiscal year 1998, which is an investment in the long-term campaign to satisfy obligations under the National Drug Control Strategy. Fiscal year 1998 drug funding has allowed the Coast Guard to institutionalize Frontier Shield, which supports ONDCP's Port and Border Security and the Caribbean Violent Crime Initiatives. Other ongoing operations, Gulf Shield and Border Shield, logically extend U.S. interdiction efforts along the land border with Mexico into the maritime region.

The fiscal year 1999 budget includes operating expenses and capital investments necessary to strengthen current law-enforcement presence in the transit and arrival zones. Funding for increased sensor capabilities to improve the effectiveness of existing assets has been received. The fiscal year 1999 budget also includes funding for operation of a Caribbean Support Tender to further engage our Caribbean partners and enhance the abilities of their maritime forces.

Coast Guard law-enforcement performance goals include increasing seizure rates to satisfy the National Strategy and optimizing the effect of deterrence that law-enforcement activity has on smuggler behavior. As long as more than 400 metric tons of cocaine are moving through the transit zone, the value of and necessity for agile interdiction forces are undeniable.

The Coast Guard must employ new tools to weave a seamless Steel Web of enforcement. Appropriate Coast Guard resources to detect and deter drug smugglers will enhance maritime interdiction capability in the transit zone. The fiscal year 2000 budget request and the five-year plan mandated by the National Drug Control Strategy will seek funding for the tools to meet the Coast Guard's responsibilities under the Strategy by strengthening its drug interdiction program. The Coast Guard has a unique role and a sizable area of responsibility. The funding and resources approved for the Steel Web campaign will allow the Coast Guard to shield America's maritime borders more effectively. By closing the door on drugs at our borders, in the words of General Barry McCaffrey, "We increase the security of all Americans." The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for protecting our national interests and border sovereignty—not only against drugs but also against a broad range of threats.

As we approach the 21st century, many existing assets are nearing the end of their service lives. Loss of capability and increased operational costs are serious concerns as the threats at sea become more sophisticated. In short, the ability to remain semper paratus —always ready—to carry out sovereignty missions is a major Coast Guard concern. The U.S. Coast Guard has a proven strategy to meet the maritime challenges of the next century. Interdiction that generates deterrence—as evidenced in recent operations—demonstrates that the Coast Guard's maritime law-enforcement role on the high seas works.

Admiral Hull is Director of Operations Policy. Before his current assignment, he served as Seventh Coast Guard District Chief of Operations and Chief of Staff. Among his float tours, he served as commanding officer of the Red Birch (WLM-687), Alert (WMEC-630), and Dallas (WHEC-716). He is a 1969 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy. Lieutenant Commander Emerson currently is assigned as a staff officer in the Office of Law Enforcement at Coast Guard Headquarters. A 1984 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, he has served two tours afloat and two tours in aviation as an HC-130 aircraft commander.


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