That’s a great haul for a 30-day operation, but according to Brennell, perhaps the most promising outcome of Operation Betelgeuse was the degree to which Mexican and Colombian officials took charge in planning and executing operations. “Our partner nations’ institutions are able to handle more,” he said. “Costa Rica and Panama are great examples, busting up corruption and getting real results. Partner nation interdictions are up as well.” In 2018, for example, the Colombian navy intercepted 14 of the difficult-to-track smuggling vessels known as “narco-subs,” semi-submersible craft built to avoid detection – more than triple the number it seized last year.
A strategic thrust of Operation Martillo has been to push illicit shipments farther out to sea, but the success of this push has created new challenges, particularly in detecting these shipments.
A strategic thrust of Operation Martillo has been to push illicit shipments farther out to sea, but the success of this push has created new challenges, particularly in detecting these shipments. The mainstays of maritime surveillance, the Coast Guard’s HC-130 and CBP’s Orion P-3 airplanes, despite their ranges of up to 4,900 nautical miles, often don’t have the legs to detect vessels that often, to avoid detection, swing out west of the Galapagos Islands.
But according to Wieschhorster, the service’s new national security cutters offer a far better suite of tactical capabilities for counterdrug operations than older surface platforms. “The capability difference between our legacy fleet and these new national security cutters is completely night and day,” he said. “It’s like going from a horse and carriage to a spacecraft.” With a state-of-the-art sensor package, the ability to launch both short- and long-range pursuit boats from its stern, and a flight deck that can dispatch an armed Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON), the NSC extends both the range and speed of the Coast Guard’s interdiction capabilities.
“We’re seeing more of these low-profile go-fast vessels,” he said, “and when these traffickers switch tactics like that, it means we’ve been very successful in shutting down another mode of conveyance for them.”
“We have the ability to see things that our legacy cutters just can’t,” said Wieschhorster – and that ability was recently boosted by a medium-range unmanned aircraft system (UAS), the fixed-wing ScanEagle, that can be launched from the deck of the NSC and observe traffickers from a distance. “Not only can we tell what these guys are doing right away and rule out whether they’re a target or not,” said Wieschhorster, “but we can also record whether they are meeting up with certain vessels … It allows us to keep eyes on these guys and be virtually undetectable. We can get everything we need in terms of the authority to go board that vessel.”
Some of the Stratton’s recent interdictions occurred southwest of the Galapagos, and three involved a new kind of vessel that hybridizes the capabilities of semi-submersibles and the “go-fast” boats built to outrun pursuers. Known as “very slender vessels,” or VSVs, they ride nearly level with the ocean surface, and can move quickly, making them difficult to both detect and intercept.
Wieschhorster reads the appearance of a new kind of smuggling craft as a positive sign. “We’re seeing more of these low-profile go-fast vessels,” he said, “and when these traffickers switch tactics like that, it means we’ve been very successful in shutting down another mode of conveyance for them.”
When a cutter such as the Stratton returns to port after a counterdrug operation, media reports of the patrol are usually accompanied by photos of the haul: bales of cocaine and cash, piled on deck or dockside. This is when members of the public often stop paying attention, but according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Ruddy, chief of the transnational organized crime section for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, a maritime drug interdiction is “the first domino” to fall in an investigative process that may lead to the upper echelons of a criminal organization. “I call it the investigative point of entry into the smuggling organization,” said Ruddy.
Ruddy is lead prosecutor for the Panama Express Strike Force, a group comprised of agents and analysts from the Coast Guard, the DEA, the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Navy, and other parts of JIATF-South. A maritime interdiction has important short-term outcomes, Ruddy said: “One, you’ve prevented the drugs from reaching the United States. That’s huge. Two, when it’s seized out on the water, that is a direct loss to the cocaine owner.” In this way, he said, the seizures act as “force multipliers,” disrupting the upward movement of transport organizers within the organization.
But the goal of Ruddy and of everyone involved in maritime drug interdiction is not to merely seize drugs and cost criminals money – it’s to erase these criminal organizations entirely, and to weaken their sweeping influence on societies throughout the Americas. After the drugs are taken off the water, they’re not particularly useful to investigators for these purposes.
However, drug-smuggling mariners – whom Ruddy calls “subcontractors for the cocaine owners” – detained by Coast Guard law enforcement teams can lead investigators up the organizational hierarchy: obtaining evidence against members of the transportation organization and then leveraging transporters’ legal jeopardy to encourage cooperation in identifying and incriminating organizational leaders. “It works, and it helps us to dismantle these organizations before they get too entrenched into those countries, before they’ve established influence politically, economically, or with the police or military,” said Ruddy.
These far-reaching effects of maritime drug interdiction may not be as easily photographed as a huge stash of cocaine, but they’re not lost on anyone in the Coast Guard. “When these drugs get into Central and South America, they get broken down into smaller loads,” said Wieschhorster. “They’re hard to detect. And they’re trafficked with such violence that it subverts the rule of law there, and that drives the pressure of migration toward the U.S. southern border. So the more effective we are, the more we help stabilize the Central and South America region and ease pressure on the border. That’s why this mission is so important.”