Coast Guard feels squeeze in drug fight
ALAMEDA, Calif. — Vice Adm. Fred Midgette, commander of Coast Guard operations in the Pacific Area, has a challenge almost as vast as the ocean he patrols in search of drug traffickers, with responsibilities for an area that is twice the size of the continental United States.
The Coast Guard is struggling to keep pace, seizing about 20 percent of all the drugs that come into the U.S. through a coastal border, as its aging fleet attempts to pursue the speedboats favored by the traffickers.
“When most people think border security, they think Border Patrol,” Midgette said. “What we do by intercepting drugs on the high seas has a direct connection to what happens at the southern border in terms of stopping illicit drugs and illegal immigration.”
“When you are stopping drugs at the Rio Grande, that’s already a loss,” he added. “You want to push that stuff off from America as far as you can.”
But that is becoming increasingly difficult for the Coast Guard, which has operated with flat budgets even as its mission has expanded to include intelligence and anti-terrorism.
There are newer ships like the Stratton, one of six national security Coast Guard cutters, but many others in the fleet are more than 50 years old. President Donald Trump’s new budget would cut Coast Guard funding by 2.4 percent.
The proposed reduction comes as the smuggling problem has become more urgent. About 70 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. passes through a corridor that runs up to the borders of Guatemala and El Salvador. Fighting among drug cartels that control the smuggling routes has led to record-high homicide rates and driven thousands of people to the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum.
Founded more than 100 years ago, the Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, operates simultaneously as a military service, a law enforcement agency and as a member of the U.S. intelligence community. Known primarily for its role in search and rescue missions, the Coast Guard said its priorities are tackling drug trafficking organizations and protecting the southern border.
Funding the Coast Guard at current levels — nearly $10 billion — leaves the service struggling to fight drug trafficking that has been pushed offshore by beefed up security on the southern land border.
“We give you the biggest bang for the buck,” said Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard. “But our resources are limited. As a result, we can’t catch all the drug smuggling we know about. Just last year we had intelligence on nearly 580 possible shipments but couldn’t go intercept them because we didn’t have the ships or planes to go after them.”
Catching drugs in the ocean is vital to Homeland Security efforts because that is when the volume and the purity of the drugs are at their highest. It is also where drug traffickers are most vulnerable.
“We take advantage of the fact that we have the advantage on the water,” said Capt. Nathan Moore, the departing commander of the Stratton. “When they see that huge ship coming at them over the horizon, most of them just give up.”
Moore said that even with all the technology on the Stratton, finding a panga or narco sub painted blue to blend in with the ocean was difficult. The Coast Guard said it intercepted a record six narco subs during fiscal 2016.
Most of the illegal vessels are sunk. Last year, the Coast Guard seized a record 450,000 pounds of cocaine, valued at nearly $6 billion, an amount that was more than all the cocaine seized by landbased law enforcement agencies combined. Coast Guard boats also intercepted nearly 7,000 people trying to illegally enter the U.S., officials said.
Coast Guard officials say the intelligence gleaned from captured drug shipments and vessels has helped lead to the extradition of nearly 75 percent of all Colombian cartel leaders, and contributed to the capture of Carlos Arnoldo Lobo, a Honduran cartel leader, and to the second capture of Joaquin Guzman Loera, the Mexican drug lord better known as El Chapo.
But drug interdiction is only one of its missions. Coast Guard personnel protect domestic and foreign ports from terrorist threats, and elite counterterrorism teams are deployed worldwide to provide security at ports and other maritime installations.
In the U.S., they patrol ports looking for terrorists and other threats. Anti-terrorism units, called maritime safety and security teams, carry out port safety patrols and are trained to operate after an attack by chemical, biological or radiological means.
The widening mission and shrinking budget have left some Coast Guard officials questioning whether they can successfully fulfill their mission.
“We continue to be able to see a significant amount of drug trafficking toward Central America and Mexico,” Zukunft said. “We are besieged in the region because of a lack of resources. Drug traffickers simply have more boats and crafts than we have ships and planes to catch them.”