Since the 1970s, the Caribbean and eastern Pacific corridors have been the primary channels for smuggling illicit drugs from South America into the United States. The 1989 National Defense Authorization Act tasks the Department of Defense (DoD) as the lead agency for detecting and monitoring illegal drug transits, but it also directs Coast Guard vessels and personnel on board naval vessels of opportunity to make arrests and conduct searches and seizures. Detection and monitoring, as well as intelligence processing and dissemination to various intelligence and law enforcement partners, are executed by Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATFS). Responsibility for interdiction and apprehension shifts to Coast Guard District 7 for Caribbean and Atlantic operations and District 11 for Pacific operations.
Districts 7 and 11 also execute nearly all other Coast Guard missions. District 7 is responsible for 1.8 million square miles of ocean, the four busiest cruise ship ports in the world, and more recreational boaters than anywhere else in the country.1 District 11 covers a 3.3 million square mile territory, including three high-traffic commercial ports, and every year conducts thousands of search-and-rescue cases, boardings, inspections, and investigations of commercial fisheries, marine facilities, and marine casualties.2 While counterdrug operations are a relatively small proportion of their workload—since 2016, the Coast Guard has logged around 300 drug events each year within the JIATFS joint operating area—Districts 7 and 11 are already task-saturated.3 Counternarcotics is a national security mission, and it requires more than a shared spot with other Coast Guard missions.
The United States needs a single element to take control of law enforcement assets within the JIATFS operating area to tackle the counternarcotics mission and unify the strategic goals of DoD and the Coast Guard.
A National Security Priority
In 2020, the President and his military commanders announced enhanced counternarcotics operations to be carried out by Coast Guard cutters, Navy assets, and Air Force aircraft throughout the JIATFS joint operating area.4 More assets available for detection, monitoring, interdiction, and apprehension inevitably produces an increased number of drug events. Indeed, returning from a 2021 deployment in August, the USCGC James (WMSL-754) offloaded nearly 51,000 pounds of cocaine and marijuana.5 Extrapolating this achievement to multiple national security cutters and Navy destroyers forecasts a growing workload for Districts 7 and 11.
Although preventing the import of cocaine is only a small part of the effort to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the United States, the method by which it arrives is of particular interest and applicability to the Coast Guard. The Drug Enforcement Agency estimates 99 percent of all cocaine destined for the United States travels through either the Caribbean Sea or the eastern Pacific.6 It remains the largest drug by volume interdicted in the Coast Guard’s niche of maritime interdictions in international waters.7 Thus, the service remains poised to be the foremost interdiction and apprehension mechanism against go-fast vessels, medium-range foreign-flagged fishing vessels, and stealthy low-profile and self-propelled semisubmersibles, with assistance in detection and monitoring from various DoD and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assets.
A Unified DoD–Coast Guard Effort
Before 2003, JIATF East and West divided responsibilities for the Western Hemisphere Transit Zone. Tactical control of assets responsible for detecting and monitoring illegal drug transits could shift between the task forces multiple times over a single deployment, depending on the number of times operating area boundaries were crossed. However, when JIATF West’s responsibilities shifted to Asia and the western Pacific, the newly formed JIATF South assumed responsibility for planning, coordinating, synchronizing, and executing counternarcotics operations in the 42 million square mile joint operating area. A single U.S. director position was established and placed in charge of multinational and interagency detection and monitoring operations to mitigate previously restrictive operational seams, which are easily disrespected and exploited by illicit air and maritime trafficking organizations.8
Unfortunately, multiple commands still exist for the interdiction and apprehension phases of the counternarcotics mission. JIATFS has seen firsthand how integration of responsibilities and territorial limits produce success; the Coast Guard should follow suit and align its counterdrug priorities and guidance with its partners under a single entity to form a cohesive and aligned partnership toward a high-priority mission.
The presence of U.S. naval assets in the joint operating area is not unprecedented and has resulted in the detection of smuggling vessels. In April 2019, for example, the USS Michael Murphy (DDG-112) came across a low-profile vessel that began jettisoning bales of cocaine on detecting the destroyer’s embarked helicopter.9 After an initial investigation by the destroyer, the USCGC Midgett (WMSL-757) vectored to complete the law enforcement portion of the interdiction. This event speaks to the detection capability and integration of the Navy’s destroyer fleet and the Coast Guard’s national security cutter force in the Southern and Northern Commands’ areas of responsibility; however, it also highlights a shortcoming in a combined mission-focused strategy between the Coast Guard and DoD.
While the Michael Murphy detected the stealthy smuggling vessel, she lacked the law enforcement element that would have allowed successful prosecution. Instead, an additional asset was requested to move out of vector to assist the destroyer when, in fact, the destroyer already was required by law to have Coast Guard law enforcement operators on board while transiting through the JIATFS joint operating area.10 Seamless and cohesive mission direction between Coast Guard and Navy operational managers would prevent missed opportunities and prolonged efforts such as this. It would keep capable assets in vector targeting more smugglers rather than assisting other vessels that should have had the law enforcement capability from the beginning.
The increased presence of Coast Guard and DoD assets in the JIATFS joint operating area accentuates the need to streamline operations through a dedicated office within the Coast Guard’s authorities. As capable Navy and Coast Guard assets saturate the area, a surge in cases requiring the transition of roles and responsibilities from JIATFS to the Coast Guard and the attention of district watchstanders can be expected. A unified long-term strategy between DoD and Coast Guard elements is critical for seamless integration of the two responsible agencies.
Single Tactical Control
Creating an additional Coast Guard district with law enforcement authorities is one possible solution, but the district also would be responsible for traditional missions such as aids to navigation, living marine resources protection, marine safety, and search and rescue. As noted previously, the counternarcotics mission is a national security priority and should not be a split focus with other missions. Instead, an office with the authorities and prioritization to conduct the interdiction and apprehension phases of the counternarcotics mission would be the most effective option for continued mission success. Where Districts 7 and 11 have search and rescue as their leading priority in zones of high-density legitimate maritime traffic, a counternarcotics-oriented tactical control element would prioritize the strategic goals and shared mental models of the intelligence collection and dissemination efforts, the detection and monitoring responsibilities, and the interdiction and apprehension roles.
This is not meant to imply the current structure for drug enforcement in the Caribbean or eastern Pacific is failing, nor is it meant to diminish the efforts and success of Districts 7 and 11. Rather, it is to suggest a long-term, sustainable element whose sole focus is combating the transnational organized crime that continues to threaten the national security of the United States.
The Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy speaks of unity of effort among various agencies and DHS components and specifically mentions how “situational awareness, integration, and synchronization of planning will be essential at every level of coordination across the homeland security enterprise.”11 A successful district is staffed by subject-matter experts in all of its assigned missions. Similarly, a successful counternarcotics law enforcement tactical command element would be staffed with maritime enforcement specialists and officers with law enforcement team/law enforcement detachment experience; cuttermen with operational experience in the joint operating area; intelligence professionals with knowledge of the JIATFS intelligence process and joint operating area trends; and liaisons between both elements to ensure continuity. A team of personnel with these backgrounds would provide the essential advisory, training, and policy support necessary in a specialized unit. As for the granting of statements of no objection, a flag-level commander (or director, to parallel the JIATFS named position) with a wealth of JIATFS joint operating experience would be appropriate, perhaps under the umbrella of the Deputy Commandant for Operations.
JIATFS is the intelligence fusion center directing the detection and monitoring of maritime surface and air targets of interest. A counternarcotics law enforcement element would be the enforcement arm that supports the prosecution of suspected smugglers, unifies mission directives and guidance under the National Security Strategy, and brings the intelligence preparation and targeting process full circle against drug-trafficking organizations.
1. U.S. Coast Guard, Seventh Coast Guard District Strategy, November 2018.
2. U.S. Coast Guard, “U.S. Coast Guard 11th District Unit Fact Sheet,” 1 August 2019.
3. U.S. Coast Guard, Annual Performance Report, Fiscal Year 2020.
4. U.S. Southern Command, “SOUTHCOM Enhanced Counter Narcotics Operations.”
5. U.S. Coast Guard, “Coast Guard Cutter James Returns Home from 82-day Patrol in Eastern Pacific Ocean,” news release, 16 August 2021.
6. Drug Enforcement Administration, 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment.
7. U.S. Coast Guard, Annual Performance Report, Fiscal Year 2020.
8. Evan Munsing and Christopher Lamb, “Joint Interagency Task Force-South: The Best Known, Least Understood Interagency Success,” National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies, Strategic Perspectives no. 5 (June 2011).
9. Petty Officer Byron Linder, USN, “USS Michael Murphy Supports Maritime Interdiction Operations,” U.S. Southern Command, 1 August 2019.
10. U.S. Code Title 10—Armed Forces, 2011, 10 U.S.C. 379—Assignment of Coast Guard personnel to naval vessels for law enforcement purposes.
11. U.S. Coast Guard, Western Hemisphere Strategy (Washington, DC: Coast Guard Headquarters, September 2014).