Protecting the nation’s Pacific Southwest border has grown from a comparatively routine task to a complex and increasingly dangerous one – partly due to post-9/11 concerns about terrorism, and partly due to a decade of escalating smuggling activity involving illegal drugs and illegal immigrants moving north from Mexico, as well as weapons and money moving south.
One of the key players in protecting border security in the region is the Coast Guard’s 11th District. The district boundaries include the Pacific Coast along California and the offshore waters of Mexico, Central and South America, as well as inland waterways in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming.
Responsible for thousands of miles of coastline and ocean, district headquarters are located on Coast Guard Island in Alameda, Calif., along the east side of San Francisco Bay. Local responsibility for the Pacific Southwest border falls to Coast Guard Sector Commands in San Diego and Los Angeles/Long Beach.
“The biggest challenge for this area is miles and miles of open coast,” said Cmdr. Claudia Camp, the 11th District’s chief of enforcement. “If you think about the East Coast, most of the Eastern Seaboard is inhabited. California really doesn’t have that – and Oregon and Washington even less so. The smugglers like to have infrastructure, however, especially access to highways, which is why they focus on Los Angeles. They need a way to move drugs or people quickly to distant markets such as New Orleans, or interior states, once they reach shore.”
The Coast Guard’s role in border security is the same in California as in Miami, Fla., or on the Great Lakes, which includes stopping illegal immigration, smuggling, fisheries enforcement, and environmental protection.
In December 2005, the Coast Guard initiated a multiagency effort dubbed Operation Baja Oleada. Under the command of the 11th District, Baja Oleada, which basically means “wave” in Spanish, used district, sector, and partner-agency resources to focus on the U.S.-Mexican Pacific maritime border in coordination with SEMAR – Secretaría de Marina – Mexico’s equivalent of the U.S. Coast Guard.
The stated purpose and principle goals were to stem the tide of illegal drugs and illegal immigrants coming from Mexico by sea or along the coastline, and leverage intelligence opportunities to interdict guns or money going south from the United States into Mexico.
“It was an ongoing, coordinated effort rather than individual unit operations, and there were some major busts while Oleada was in place,” Lt. Cmdr. Sal Fazio, Enforcement Division chief for Sector Los Angeles/Long Beach, explained. “Essentially, certain assets were tasked to support it while out on their assigned regular missions. Aviation forces were tasked per flight, while cutters – coming from as far north as Oregon, but primarily California-based – were assigned specific longer-term patrols.”