In mid-September 2018, at the conclusion of a deployment that had taken it from maritime domain awareness patrols off the Alaska North Slope to counterdrug operations off the coasts of South and Central America, the CGC Stratton, a 418-foot Legend-class national security cutter (NSC), stopped in San Diego to offload more than 11 tons of cocaine. The drugs had been seized in less than a month, in joint interdictions performed with international partners and the Coast Guard cutters Seneca and Active.
“We were in vector for less than 30 days,” said Capt. Craig Wieschhorster, the Stratton’s commanding officer, “and saw seven cases down there.”
The overarching difficulty the Coast Guard and its partners face in the transit zone is its size: 7 million square miles of ocean, an expanse about twice the size of the continental United States.
The 2016 fiscal year was a record-setting year for illicit drug seizures in the Transit Zone, the northward maritime approaches to Central and North America; the Coast Guard and its partners seized about 450,000 pounds of cocaine, worth nearly $6 billion. In June 2018, when the Stratton left its homeport at Coast Guard Island in Alameda, California, the service was on pace to break that record, seizing cocaine shipments at a rate of nearly a ton a day. The increase in seizures mirrors record increases in production; in September 2018, the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime reported Colombia’s coca production to be at an all-time high, and increasing at a rate of 45 percent annually.
“We’ve gotten better at it [counterdrug operations] over the past two decades,” said Cmdr. Jason Brennell, deputy chief of the Coast Guard’s Office of Maritime Law Enforcement. “But at the same time, I’d say over the past several years there’s been a lot more cocaine on the water.”
The Coast Guard wants to do better than keep pace with this increase; it wants to take a bigger bite of those illegal shipments overall. It confronts several significant challenges, both strategic and tactical, but in recent years, the service and its partners have joined forces to overcome those challenges in innovative and often surprising ways.
The adversaries in the Transit Zone aren’t mere drug dealers: They are deep-pocketed and well-connected criminal organizations with tentacles that extend deeply into Latin American and Caribbean societies. The illegal drug trade is just one way these groups finance their activities; the same networks are used to move money, contraband, weapons, and people. In Latin American and Caribbean nations, this transnational web of crime undermines economic development, human rights, and the rule of law through violence and corruption; in the United States, these organizations threaten public health and national security.
Because of this, the effort to disrupt their influence begins at the highest levels of government and involves partners throughout the Western Hemisphere. The Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of State work together to plan and conduct regular engagements with counterparts from other nations. These multilateral summits include the semi-annual Multilateral Maritime Counter Drug Summit, which focuses on the Central and South American regions, and the annual Multilateral Maritime Interdiction and Prosecution Summit, which focuses on the Caribbean region. The summits support key elements of U.S. policy, including last year’s Presidential Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking, the State Department’s Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), and the Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy.
Lt. Cmdr. Paul Windt, from the Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement Policy, describes these meetings as “free exchanges of information about how we and our partner nations can combat transnational criminal organizations in the maritime domain.” The summits are operationally focused and involve close coordination among naval and coast guard forces from partner nations.
Despite their considerable reach, JIATF-South and its enforcement partners can’t be everywhere in the Transit Zone, and they exert little or no influence over production, one of the most important factors driving the increase in illegal drug shipments.
The overarching difficulty the Coast Guard and its partners face in the transit zone is its size: 7 million square miles of ocean, an expanse about twice the size of the continental United States. The vastness of this area has compelled the lead U.S. counterdrug organization in the region – U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-South) – to join forces not only with other federal agencies, such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), but also with naval and coast guard partners in the Western Hemisphere and Europe. In 2012, these 15 international partners began Operation Martillo, a program of joint maritime patrols and interdictions aimed at fighting drug trafficking, enhancing regional security, and promoting stability and prosperity throughout Central and South America.
Despite their considerable reach, JIATF-South and its enforcement partners can’t be everywhere in the Transit Zone, and they exert little or no influence over production, one of the most important factors driving the increase in illegal drug shipments. The Coast Guard and its counterparts often form more narrowly focused bilateral or multilateral operational partnerships with the goal of building the capacity of partner nations to help address these problems. In spring 2018, the service launched joint operations with the naval forces of Mexico and Colombia, aimed at improving information sharing and coordination of patrols through well-traveled smuggling routes, with leadership from senior Mexican and Colombian officials. The first such operation, a 30-day joint patrol named Operation Betelgeuse, resulted in 16 interdictions, during which about 21,000 pounds of drugs were seized and 55 traffickers apprehended.