Despite the low reported rate to date, has District 7 taken any steps to upgrade anti-piracy resources, including partial retasking of assets already being used for other missions?
Piracy is one thing, boat theft another. In this hemisphere, what we see is more on the order of armed robbery, mostly involving recreational sailors who encounter criminals at sea who want their money or other valuables they may have on board.
The theft of boats from their owners, primarily in south Florida, is a big concern because it enables the smuggling industry, primarily human smuggling. The primary mode for those thefts is to smuggle people from Cuba to Mexico. A smuggler steals a boat, picks up about 30 people in Cuba on a 30-ft boat, collect $10,000 a head; that’s a pretty good take for a week’s worth of work.
Largely because we are doing a good job of interdicting that kind of activity in the Straits of Florida, they look for other routes, one of the most popular being to the Yucatan.
We work closely with state and local law enforcement to choke off the supply of stolen boats, but ultimately the owners must be responsible for securing their boats. We are trying to educate boat owners on the need to lock up and disable their boats to ensure their vessels are secure. A lot of owners are including a Lojack capability so the boats can be tracked.
South Florida has long been a major problem area for drug smuggling. What is the Coast Guard’s role in counter-drug operations out of District 7?
We work closely with DoD and a number of other agencies – SOUTHCOM [U.S. Southern Command] and the Joint Interagency Task Force South in Key West on the illegal narcotics mission. We also work closely with a number of foreign partners who supply ships. In addition, every foreign or U.S. Navy ship working this mission has a Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment – usually a team of 8 to 10 – on board to enforce maritime law at sea.
We also, in the last 10 years, have incorporated airborne force against both drug and human smugglers. They can use a range of force, up to and including disabling fire against their engines after giving them ample opportunity to reply to our request to stop, whether visual signals, radio calls or warning shots.
In a PWCS area, in terms of counter-terrorism, it is more a lethal effort. It is clearly a last resort, but you often only have a split second to decide how you’re going to act.
Any final thoughts?
Counter-smuggling is a significant hat I wear that takes a lot of my time as director of the Homeland Security Task Force Southeast. It stands at the ready in the event of a mass migration declaration. We have a plan called Operation Vigilant Sentry that coordinates dozens of federal, state and local agencies to swing into action for all aspects imaginable to coordinate a massive operation, whether at sea or domestically, to handle something on the order of Mariel or the mid-90s Haitian mass migration. As a result of that task force, we’re ready.
We’re always concerned about that and it’s hard to predict. We closely watch indicators and warnings that might raise concern that activities might ramp up. There is a steady state flow of migrants, between 500 and 1,000 a month in the maritimes. That’s normal operations. But who knows what might happen in any country that would cause people to want to leave and come to the U.S.? We have to be ready for that.