From a relatively modest beginning, America’s maritime law enforcement efforts have used evidence and information gathered from drug busts at sea to make more interdictions and arrests. These tactical successes, in turn, have uncovered more pieces of the smuggling puzzle, leading to even more interdictions and arrests. Coordinated federal maritime efforts over the past decade have, in some cases, resulted in the arrest and removal of an entire leadership layer of some transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). This has been essential in stemming the influence of TCOs and preventing further de-stabilization of governments in our hemisphere.
This self-reinforcing process is known as the maritime law enforcement cycle of success, which consists of seven interrelated elements: intelligence, detection, sorting, monitoring, interception and apprehension, disposition, and investigation and prosecution. Although a cycle has no specific beginning or end, it is best to start by determining the desired end state—for law enforcement this is a successful criminal prosecution. In the larger, more strategic sense, the goal is improved maritime governance and a more stable hemisphere. This cycle can apply to any transnational threat, whether national security, homeland security, criminal, or some combination thereof. It can be useful for decision makers at both the strategic and operational levels in understanding the myriad factors they need to consider, as well as how they relate to each other.
Success, however, is not ensured, and the cycle has many moving parts, both internal and external, that require the cooperation of multiple players. From layered security to interagency cooperation and shared intelligence, partnerships are the driving force behind the cycle’s continued success at combating the illicit activities in the world’s waterways.
Exploiting the Oceans
Over 70 percent of the world is covered by oceans, which are the highways for an intertwined global economy. Global trade, most of which occurs in the maritime commons—those areas of the ocean outside any nation’s jurisdiction—requires a safe and secure environment in which to operate. The maritime commons are a particularly challenging and difficult environment as there are vast ungoverned/under-governed areas of open ocean and a plethora of different and sometimes conflicting laws and jurisdictions. Compounding this problem are the facts that it is relatively easy for nefarious groups to hide in plain sight by mixing with legitimate traffic and that it is expensive and difficult to maintain an effective maritime law enforcement presence in all geographic areas of national security interest.
While nearly all maritime traffic has a legitimate purpose, the vastness of oceans can mask a variety of threats. Criminal organizations exploit the maritime commons to transport contraband and other illicit goods and people, or to attack or disrupt legitimate commerce and critical infrastructure. Illicit activities run the gamut from illegal fishing to contraband smuggling to piracy and insurance fraud. It is in every nation’s interest to protect and facilitate legitimate activities in the global commons, and this requires them to expand and enhance cooperation in maritime governance to prevent misuse of the maritime transportation system starting in the port of origin, through the oceanic transit zone, to the port of destination.
Layers of Security
Within the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) leverages the unique blend of maritime security authorities, capabilities, and partnerships that exist among its components to mitigate risk and improve security in domestic ports, on the high seas, and in ports abroad. The overarching strategy is to increase maritime border security through a layered system that begins beyond the country’s physical borders.
The U.S. layered approach to security begins in foreign ports where the U.S. Coast Guard conducts foreign port assessments through the International Port Security program to assess the effectiveness of port security and antiterrorism measures. It continues with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspection of cargo destined for the United States before it is loaded and the screening of vessels and crew for potential threats. The Coast Guard requires all commercial vessels to submit an advanced Notice of Arrival at least 96 hours before entering a U.S. port (proportionately less for vessels on voyages under 96 hours), which is used for vessel traffic control, denying entry of unsafe vessels, and targeting vessels for boarding and examination. Department of Defense (DOD) assets, primarily under the tactical control of Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-South) provide significant assistance to law enforcement in this area.
Well before vessels arrive in ports, then, screening and targeting operations provide critical information regarding vessels, crews, passengers, and cargo destined for the United States. To prevent and respond to potential threats approaching America’s shores, Coast Guard and CBP aircraft, boats, radar systems, and specially trained personnel are able to monitor, track, interdict, and board vessels. In and around our ports, DHS components, along with their federal, state, local, and tribal partners and working in concert with port stakeholders, patrol U.S. waters and critical infrastructure; conduct vessel escorts; and inspect travelers, vessels, and facilities.
Intelligence collection, analysis, dissemination, and sharing begin before any specific threats are known or identified, and a solid foundation must be established. Since it is difficult initially to determine the nature and scope of a threat, and available information is usually fragmented and confusing, it is essential that partners share intelligence.
This helps operational commanders best place limited assets in the vast maritime realm to detect, sort, and monitor suspicious vessels and activities of legitimate commercial and recreational vessels, and establishes an effective presence supporting maritime domain awareness. The importance of intelligence and partnerships is evident in counterdrug operations, where JIATF-South merges the capabilities of the Department of Justice (DOJ), DOD, DHS, the intelligence community, and various international partner agencies. Responsible for monitoring of the six-million-square-mile transit zone between the source and transit countries in the Western Hemisphere and the United States, JIATF-South constantly moves maritime air and surface assets. These decisions are based on factors such as the quality and amount of intelligence information, asset capabilities and endurance, authorities, environmental conditions, proximity to shoreside support, and asset capacities and availability. There is no standard force laydown: The best use of resources will vary daily or even hourly.
Based on an analysis of the nature, level, and degree of a suspected threat, appropriate forces are diverted to intercept and apprehend the suspect vessel. This begins the investigative process and information gathering phase that eventually should lead to interdiction, prosecution, and development of new intelligence. It should be noted that the authority, capability, and capacity to do so vary from country to country and even internally between national agencies, emphasizing the critical need for domestic and foreign partnerships. This is accomplished through a series of interagency and international agreements, which facilitate law enforcement actions at sea.
Once a maritime threat is interdicted and apprehended, the next challenge becomes determining disposition of migrants and/or suspects, vessels, and contraband. A variety of factors that come into play at this point based on the vessel’s flag, its location, the flag of the interdicting unit, and any bi-national agreements. Factors to consider include authorities, jurisdiction, political will, constitutional considerations, capability to take custody, capacity to prosecute, nexus to the criminal activity, and mutual agreement on the most effective course of action. The DOJ is responsible for this part of the cycle, often in consultation with other departments that have varied equities in the outcome. Disposition of each part can be separate or combined, and decisions regarding suspects can have a profound effect on the continued success of the cycle due to the potential intelligence information that can be derived through interrogation.
Following tactical disposition, the investigation continues in earnest to determine potential operational and strategic impacts. Evidence is collected and preserved, information is shared and analyzed, new intelligence leads are pursued, other suspects are identified, and links within the smuggling organization are discovered. This investigative work forms the basis for a prosecution that seeks to uncover other parts of the smuggling organization while delivering punishment commensurate with the seriousness of the crime. If done well, this process will result in new and deeper intelligence that can be exploited for future tactical success, helping law enforcement better position its limited resources, thus feeding the cycle of success.
Each aspect of the cycle has a broad range of possible inputs and outcomes, which in turn will affect the ultimate course of action taken. To improve efficiency and effectiveness, the most likely potential courses of action have been mapped out and standardized. Decision making is pushed to the lowest level possible, consistent with authorities and adequate oversight. Often, decisions can be made by operational commanders or field-level interagency regional concurrence teams. Domestically, this is done through interagency agreements, standard operating procedures (SOP), and business rules. Internationally, bilateral and multilateral agreements spell out SOP and establish an expedited means through designated operations centers to gain approval to take law enforcement actions involving foreign-flagged suspect vessels or actions in foreign territorial waters.
For cases in which none of the standardized procedures provides adequate authorities or prearranged outcomes, the maritime operational threat response (MOTR) plan launches the interagency process to achieve coordinated action. The MOTR plan establishes the protocols for conducting real-time federal communication, coordination, and decision making through an integrated network of national-level agency command and operations centers. It also sets forth lead and supporting federal agency roles and responsibilities based on existing law, the desired U.S. government outcome, the greatest potential magnitude of the threat, the response capabilities required, asset availability, and authority to act. The plan directs clear coordination relationships and operational coordination requirements among the lead and supporting MOTR agencies, enabling the U.S. government to act quickly and decisively to counter maritime threats. In addition, the plan sets forth protocols for interagency coordination, consultation, and assessment throughout execution of the response. In short, MOTR is the grease that keeps the cycle of success moving smoothly.
Solving the Puzzle
The cycle of success is simple but fragile; fractures caused by external factors or internal inefficiencies will weaken and possibly break the cycle. TCOs, naturally, will take strategic and tactical actions to stymie or interfere with the cycle of success, including counter-intelligence, deception, intimidation through violence or the threat of violence, exploitation of legal and operational seams among and between partner nations, and always choosing the path of least resistance to improve their chances of success. It is this last trait, universal among smuggling organizations, that makes interagency and transnational cooperation essential.
Despite possessing the right authorities, capabilities, and capacities, law enforcement agencies will fail to maintain the cycle of success unless they solve the partnership puzzle. Maritime governance is the sum of the myriad legal, social, economic, and political arrangements within and among nations to bring a semblance of order to the marine environment. As such, it has overlapping international, national, and domestic dimensions, as well as gaps and seams. Through instruments such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, nations attempt to apply universal rules and customary international law where ownership, responsibilities, and authorities are not always clear.
Recognizing the value of partnerships built on mutual respect and the rule of law, the Coast Guard conducts joint and shiprider operations with international partners to deny TCO networks the use of maritime drug trafficking routes and disrupt the movement of bulk contraband in the drug transit zone. Coast Guard cutters routinely and consistently engage partner nations to exercise and maintain its 45 maritime bilateral counterdrug agreements or operational procedures, which greatly increase the operational reach of U.S. assets and enable partner nation assets to better patrol and respond to threats in their own sovereign waters. As a direct result of bilateral agreements enacted in 2012, the Coast Guard removed 116,740 pounds of cocaine and 35,735 pounds of marijuana, detained 232 suspected smugglers, and seized 43 vessels. Additionally, the Coast Guard embarks deployable law enforcement detachments on U.S. Navy and allied vessels to enhance presence and expand interdiction opportunities.
Despite the successes we can attribute to these partnerships, they are not without challenges. There simply is no such thing as a perfect partnership; each party has its own specific needs, requirements, and desired outcomes that will never be in full alignment. The key is to identify where each party’s interests overlap and to build a trusted relationship upon areas of mutual interest. For example, helping a country monitor remote parts of its exclusive economic zone to deter and interdict foreign vessels poaching its fish has the added benefit of detecting other illicit activities in an area that otherwise would be a safe haven for smugglers.
At the same time that states attempt to bring order to the maritime environment through collective governance, numerous factors complicate effective partnerships. These include varied organizational and governance constructs, language and cultural differences, overlapping missions, incompatible communications systems, incongruent strategic goals, differing legal systems and policies, organizational frictions, and the need to build trust. These factors create legal and operational loopholes that criminals can exploit, further damaging law enforcement effectiveness. For example, smugglers will move from one nation’s territorial waters to another to escape detection and pursuit by law enforcement assets from a third country. By violating the sovereignty of a nation without adequate capacity to detect and respond to illicit activities at sea, criminals are shielded from another more capable nation taking law enforcement action.
Various efforts and initiatives throughout the U.S. government aim to overcome these challenges. One such effort is the semi-annual Multilateral Maritime Counterdrug Summit, which brings together senior front-line law enforcement and legal officials from North, Central, and South American maritime services to share, exchange, and improve best practices. Through structured work groups and open-forum discussions, these officials build mutual trust and learn to think creatively about employing new tactics, techniques, and procedures respectively and collectively to combat TCOs. Trust is not easily earned or measured, but when it exists, cooperation and information sharing are greatly enhanced. This professional exchange facilitates closer collaboration and integration among partner nations—it turns the whole of government rhetoric into joint actions—and results in solutions to issues that previously impeded effective implementation of existing bilateral agreements and arrangements.
Maritime safety and security are critical components of any maritime nation’s economic and social well being. To achieve effective maritime governance, the United States must control its ports and waterways; protect critical offshore infrastructure such as oil rigs; and facilitate legitimate commerce. Situational awareness is paramount, and the United States must also protect its sovereignty over all marine resources; maintain maritime domain awareness throughout the water way approaches to the country; and deter or interdict threats as early as possible. On top of this, we must be a reliable partner, always mindful of our differences, sensitive to sovereignty concerns, and willing to compromise to form a more powerful strategic bond.
However, effective governance cannot be achieved simply through a collection of rules and regulations, ships and aircraft, government agents, and weapons—no matter how good they are. It requires an enduring partnership among the “good guys” that depends on cooperation, trust, and a willing exchange of information. The cycle of success embodies those principles, and anything that undermines the cycle threatens not only the success of individual interdictions but the entire enterprise of maritime governance, and by extension, the stability of nations and the hemisphere. It takes a strong integrated maritime law enforcement posture, anchored in a strategic foundation and strengthened through partnership, to achieve these results. Maintaining and perpetuating the cycle of success is the means to this end.