Drug interdiction is one of the Coast Guard’s most visible missions. It involves thousands of days deployed every year by Coast Guard cutters and aircraft, and typically accounts for at least 20 percent of the service’s operational budget.1 Every few months when a cutter pulls into port for a bulk contraband offload, there is a headline-grabbing photo op, with service members proudly standing behind mountains of cocaine.
In the past few years, offloads have been getting larger and larger, often setting records for kilograms interdicted. While this may seem to indicate success, several metrics, including the Coast Guard’s own reporting, show the service has little effect on the flow of cocaine into the United States. What is the impact from the billions of dollars spent on interdicting drugs at sea, and what missions are being sacrificed to support it?
Cocaine Interdiction Results
Better than the annual tonnage of cocaine interdicted, which can easily be found in Coast Guard marketing materials, the removal rate of cocaine paints a clearer picture of the service’s results. The removal rate is calculated yearly and reported to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Since 2009, to obtain that figure the Coast Guard has used the Consolidated Counter Drug Database, an interagency validated figure that estimates cocaine flow through the maritime zone by way of noncommercial vessels.2 While the metric tonnage (MT) of cocaine interdicted by the Coast Guard each year has varied—from a low of 75.5 MT in 2011 to a high of 223.8 MT in 2017—the removal rate has remained fairly consistent. For all the Coast Guard’s efforts over the past ten years, the percentage of maritime-trafficked cocaine it has interdicted has held between 7.1 and 15.3 percent.3
While these numbers may seem low, they aren’t far from the Coast Guard’s goal, which has been a removal rate of 10 percent for the past few years.4 Given the difficulty in patrolling the seven million square miles of ocean in which drug traffickers operate, the service sets its goals accordingly.5 Though the removal rate is not hidden, the more readily reported and arguably more exciting figures come from record-breaking seizures and bulk offloads that measure success in thousands of kilograms. Those offloads increasingly have been used by the Coast Guard to drum up support for the service. In the partial government shutdown of 2019, during which the Coast Guard went unfunded, the Commandant of the Coast Guard met the cutter Forward (WMEC-911) and posed in front of 15,000 kilograms of cocaine to highlight the necessity of the service and its missions. Not referenced was the fact that during the Forward’s patrol, more than ten times that amount of cocaine likely was successfully trafficked.
How the Coast Guard markets its success is understandable. It is a federally funded agency and must demonstrate its importance to get an appropriate share of the budget. The larger issue, however, is that the service is heavily relied on for this mission, but it is not very effective. Despite record interdictions, cocaine availability and usage in the United States is reaching historic highs.6
The reason the Coast Guard can regularly report stopping large quantities of cocaine is a function of production and not successful deterrence. During the past decade, cocaine production in Colombia, the United States’ leading supplier, has more than quadrupled, while the Coast Guard’s removal rate has remained steady.7 Interdictions at sea act as a modest business tax for drug suppliers; at no more than 15 percent, they are a tithing for narcotraffickers who transport in the maritime domain.
The Coast Guard cannot strictly create its own agenda, but it does have discretion in the time, money, and resources it puts into each of its missions. In a broad view, policy direction comes from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which creates the National Drug Control Strategy. For the Coast Guard, there is little specific direction, but the Strategy does aim for “drug seizures at all U.S. ports of entry [to] increase each year over five years.”8 This accurately describes the current situation, but it is not an indicator of success.
Another goal states that “illicit drugs are less available in the United States as reflected in increased price and decreased purity.” A decrease in purity, however, is a contradictory measure if the goal is improved welfare of U.S. citizens. A report put out by the ONDCP indicates that cocaine mixed with opiates increases overdose risks by 110 percent.9 Other studies estimate that the rise in cocaine-related overdose deaths in the United States occur nearly 75 percent of the time in conjunction with a cocaine-opiate mixture.10 Whatever the Coast Guard is to take away from the ONDCP’s strategy, it must take more specific direction from DHS.
The Coast Guard submits a yearly budget request to DHS that proposes spending on each of its missions. Whatever the final enacted budget, however, the Coast Guard “does not have a specific appropriation for drug interdiction activities.”11 Using that discretion, the Coast Guard has allocated more funds than its proposed budget for drug interdiction in six of the past seven years.12 That includes a record amount in Fiscal Year 2018 of nearly $2 billion, which outpaced every other operational mission.13 It achieved a cocaine removal rate of 7.3 percent.14
The reality of drug interdictions is not news to the service. According to Coast Guard Evergreen, an office devoted to long-term planning and strategy:
The Protection of Living Marine Resources (LMR) mission will increase in importance no matter how the world evolves in the next twenty years. On the other hand, the level of effort associated with the Coast Guard’s drug and alien migrant interdiction missions is contingent more on conditions outside Coast Guard control.15
The living marine resources (LMR) mission is one of two Coast Guard missions devoted to protecting fisheries in and outside U.S. waters. While LMR is focused on domestic fisheries, other law enforcement (OLE) focuses on illegal incursions by foreign fishing vessels into the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ)—the region extending 200 miles beyond U.S. shores—and enforcing agreements the United States has made with dozens of other countries to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The two missions are of huge consequence. Every year, fishing within the United States generates sales of more than $200 billion and employs 1.7 million people.16 IUU fishing also is of growing concern worldwide, with the United Nations estimating the monetary loss from illegal fishing to be $10 billion to $23 billion.17
While the Coast Guard is not the only agency responsible for protecting fisheries, it plays a significant role. The Coast Guard has enforcement authority over 202 separate fisheries. To ensure compliance of fishing regulations, the federal boarding standard is 20 percent of fishing vessels in high-precedence fisheries and 10 percent in low-precedence fisheries.18 Currently, the Coast Guard is meeting those standards in just 23 percent of its fisheries. While regulation compliance among U.S. fisherman is near 97 percent, some of the lowest policed areas, such as the waters off Alaska and Hawaii, are responsible for the highest percentage of significant violations.19
The Coast Guard measures OLE mission success by the percentage of illegal fishing vessels interdicted in the U.S. EEZ each year. At 23 percent, it is not large, but this is understandable given the millions of square miles of EEZ that must be patrolled. The more alarming statistic, however, is that 99 percent of the detected incursions are occurring at the U.S./Mexico EEZ boundary, where the Coast Guard already has a strong presence.20
Without resources in places where illegal fishing occurs, it is unlikely many incursions will be detected. As the Coast Guard notes, “The Western and Central Pacific region is extremely remote, so it is difficult to detect potential incursions and even more difficult to respond in a timely manner. However, tuna fisheries are present in these waters, and they are among the most valuable pelagic fisheries in the world.”21 Currently, the OLE mission receives less than 2 percent of the entire Coast Guard operational budget.22
It is appropriate to compare drug interdiction, LMR, and OLE missions because they require similar resources. Of those missions, drug interdiction has been a clear priority for the Coast Guard, typically receiving 30 to 40 percent more of the operational budget than LMR and 90 percent more than OLE.23 The Coast Guard’s fiscal year 2016 LMR enforcement activities report explains the decrease in resources as “primarily due to impacts from the Coast Guard’s prioritization of assets near or in the vicinity of South and Central America.”24 Similarly, Coast Guard Districts 11 and 13, which comprise the entire West Coast of the United States, note that typically only assets within 50 miles of the coast are available for LMR and “competing mission demands and patrol requirements in other regions have significantly decreased West Coast fisheries enforcement patrols by major cutters during the past several years.”25
Despite the Coast Guard’s priorities, other groups—most notably Congress—have taken a bigger interest in the OLE mission. In the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019, Congress stated, “Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing leads to billions in losses for the global fishing industry and is a source of financing for illicit activity such as piracy, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and slavery. The Coast Guard is directed to submit a plan for a one-year pilot program to address this issue, not later than 120 days after the date of enactment of this Act.” This likely is the reason the Coast Guard proposed to nearly triple the OLE budget from 2019 to 2020, an increase of $212 million. However, those resources seem to have come from domestic fisheries enforcement, with the LMR budget projected to lose nearly $300 million from 2018 to 2020.26
The Coast Guard’s priorities also represent a poor return on investment. A focus on protecting natural resources directly correlates to their value and sustainability. Instead, the Coast Guard pulls resources from fisheries enforcement and redirects them to drug interdiction. Those billions of extra dollars amount to a fractional reduction in cocaine availability. While the wholesale value of cocaine interdicted is another popular metric reported by the Coast Guard, it is virtually meaningless without a reduction in the illegal drug trade. The Coast Guard likely could devote its entire operational budget to stopping cocaine and continue to see similar results. Reporting impressive interdictions creates an illusion of success. Despite internal and external pressures, there is no indication that its priorities will shift anytime soon.
In addition to drug interdiction, LMR, and OLE, the Coast Guard has eight other major missions. Often, funding for those missions does not match their ambitious goals, and the Coast Guard must combat them with its aging cutter and aircraft fleet. The Coast Guard also has no control over cocaine production in South America, nor the appetite of Americans for the drug. It has no control over ONDCP policy and likely always will have a role in interdicting cocaine at sea. For the Coast Guard’s part, prohibition-like efforts will keep producing prohibition-like consequences. What it can do, however, is prioritize its budget and resources on areas that will have meaningful results. The Coast Guard should stop chasing the photo opportunities and start emphasizing the protection of the country’s valuable natural resources.
1. U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Coast Guard Budget in Brief (2011–19).
2. ADM Thad Allen, USCG, Fiscal Year 2008 Performance Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Coast Guard, 2009); Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General (hereafter OIG), Review of U.S. Coast Guard’s Fiscal Year 2018 Drug Control Performance Summary Report, OIG-19-27 (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2019).
3. Department of Homeland Security, OIG, Review of U.S. Coast Guard’s Fiscal Year 2014 Drug Control Performance Summary Report, OIG-15-27 (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2015); OIG, Review of U.S. Coast Guard’s Fiscal Year 2018 Drug Control Performance.
4. Department of Homeland Security, OIG, Review of U.S. Coast Guard’s Fiscal Year 2018 Drug Control Performance Summary.
5. U.S. Government Accountability Office, Overview of U.S. Efforts in the Western Hemisphere, GAO-18-10 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2017).
6. Office of National Drug Control Policy (hereafter ONDCP), “New Annual Data Released by White House Drug Policy Office Shows Record High Cocaine Cultivation and Production in Colombia,” 28 June 2018.
7. ONDCP, “New Annual Data Released by White House Drug Policy Office Shows Record High Cocaine Cultivation and Production in Colombia.”
8. ONDCP, National Drug Control Strategy (2019).
9. ONDCP, “New Annual Data Released by White House Drug Policy Office Shows Record High Cocaine Cultivation and Production in Colombia.”
10. Mbabazi Kariisa, et al., “Drug Overdose Deaths Involving Cocaine and Psychostimulants with Abuse Potential‚ United States, 2003–2017,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (3 May 2019): 68: 388–95.
11. OIG, Review of U.S. Coast Guard’s Fiscal Year 2018 Drug Control Performance Summary Report.
12. U.S. Coast Guard, “U.S. Coast Guard Budget in Brief (2010–18).”
13. ADM Karl L. Schultz, USCG, FY 2020 Budget Overview (Washington, DC, U.S. Coast Guard, 2019).
14. Department of Homeland Security, OIG, Review of U.S. Coast Guard’s Fiscal Year 2018 Drug Control Performance Summary Report.
15. U.S. Coast Guard, Coast Guard Evergreen, Project Long View: Coast Guard Strategies for 2020.
16. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Economic Impact of U.S. Commercial, Recreational Fishing Remains Strong,” 13 December 2018.
17. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing.”
18. VADM Charles W. Ray, USCG, Annual Performance Report Fiscal Year 2017 (Washington, DC: U.S. Coast Guard, 2018).
19. U.S. Coast Guard, USCG Living Marine Resource Enforcement Activities for FY16.
20. U.S. Coast Guard, Annual Performance Report Fiscal Year 2017.
21. U.S. Coast Guard, Annual Performance Report Fiscal Year 2017.
22. Schultz, FY 2020 Budget Overview.
23. U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Coast Guard Budget in Brief (2010–18).
24. U.S. Coast Guard, USCG Living Marine Resource Enforcement Activities for FY16.
25. RADM D. G. Throop, USCG, U.S. Coast Guard District Eleven & District Thirteen 2017 Report to the Pacific Fishery Management Council (Seattle, WA: U.S. Coast Guard/Districts 11 and 13, 2018).
26. Schultz, “FY 2020 Budget Overview.”