Coast Guard feels squeeze in drug fight

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - RON NIXON

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.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.