The Coast Guard is a unique branch of the nation’s five armed services that serves as the nation’s premier maritime law enforcement agency, with authorities, capabilities, competencies, and partnerships to successfully execute the mission. The Coast Guard is the lead and only federal maritime law enforcement agency with both the authority and capability to enforce national and international law, including drug interdiction, on the high seas.
Speaking before Congress in March 2019, Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Karl Schultz said that the “Coast Guard plays a critical role in a comprehensive approach to securing our borders – from disrupting drug trafficking and illegal immigration in the southern transit zones, to projecting sovereignty across the globe. Our nation’s maritime borders are vast, and include one of the largest systems of ports, waterways, and critical maritime infrastructure in the world, including 95,000 miles of coastline.”
As part of the DHS layered security strategy, Schultz said the Coast Guard pushes out our nation’s border, and serves as the “offense” in a comprehensive approach to a layered border security strategy. “Through the interdiction of illicit drugs and the detention of suspected drug smugglers, the Coast Guard disrupts TCO [Transnational Criminal Organizations] networks at sea, over a thousand miles from our shore, where they are most vulnerable. Coast Guard maritime interdictions weaken the TCOs who destabilize our immediate neighbor Mexico, the Central American land corridor, and South American countries. Our interdiction efforts minimize corruption and create space for effective governance to exist. Coast Guard interdiction efforts reduce the “push factors” that are responsible for driving migration to our Southwest land border.”
Partnerships at all levels are essential in maritime law enforcement, especially when combating TCOs and international smuggling operations.
According to Coast Guard Rear Adm. Pat DeQuattro, director of Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-South), his organization has a longstanding partnership with the Coast Guard and Navy. “We work together, and with our international partners, as we share a common cause in combating criminal drug traffickers that threaten global security and prosperity.”
JIATF-South detects and monitors illicit trafficking that occurs through international air and waters in the Western Hemisphere. “This targeting information allows our partners to better synchronize sea and air fleets to maximize the use of their resources. In fiscal year 2019, our partnerships significantly contributed to the seizure and disruption of 280 metric tons of cocaine from reaching the United States,” said DeQuattro. “This equates to over 1,900 US citizens’ lives saved from overdoses and more than $5 billion denied to drug trafficking organizations.”
DeQuattro said the Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETS) and the U.S Navy play a critical role in these successes. “The unique partnerships that exist in JIATF-South – between the Coast Guard, Navy, and all our partners across the globe – play a pivotal role in our national and global security now and into the future.”
JIATF-South serves as an interagency and international information hub to detect and monitor illicit trafficking in the southern approaches to the U.S., specifically in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific.
Campaign Martillo is the overarching umbrella that brings these different entities together to perform that detection and monitoring operation to facilitate and monitor interdictions. JIATF-South is the hub.
“Everything we do here starts with information,” said Army Lt. Col. Andrew Ajamian, the chief of the JIATF-South Strategic Initiatives Group.
JIATF-South has a statutorily based mission under Title 10 section 124, and while it does not have legal authority to interdict, detain or apprehend suspected smugglers, the Coast Guard – under its Title 14 authorities – and various entities in partner nations in the region do.
All of the military services, both active and reserve components, provide staff, along with a number of the U.S. “three letter agencies” involved with intelligence, law enforcement and national security.
“Each representative has the ability to reach back to their nation or agency,” said Ajamian. “No agency is required to be here,” said Ajamian. “They are here because they know the partnership works.”
JIATF-South also has embedded employees downrange in embassies and consulates. The multinational effort benefits from the Coast Guard’s extensive array of bilateral and multilateral agreements with nearly every coastal state in the Western Hemisphere. Twenty nations are represented at JIATF-South, and Ajamian said the Latin American countries are doing their part for Campaign Martillo.
Although their assets vary, Ajamian said JIATF-South works with DOD, the Coast Guard, and partner nations to facilitate interdiction. “We find and monitor targets until such time that we can turn over to partner nation or the Coast Guard. The JIATF-South Joint Operations Center provides command and control of forces assigned allocated to us. We may have a CBP aircraft tracking a target that we intercept with a U.S. Navy ship, with an embarked Coast Guard LEDET that conducts the actual boarding. The LEDETS are trained in maritime law, rights of suspects, rules of evidence and chain of custody. So it’s a team effort.”
The smugglers are creative, Ajamian said. “They find new ways to move their drugs every day.”
That includes all types of aircraft and a wide variety of vessels, ranging from innocent-looking fishing and sailboats to built-for-the-purpose semi-submersibles and even fully submersible vessels that are extremely difficult to see or detect with radar.
“Our goal is to interdict these shipments before they can arrive at a location where they can be divided up into many smaller shipments and thus much harder to stop,” said Ajamian.
Ajamian said JIATF-South also works closely with its counterparts at JIATF-West in Honolulu. “We hand off traffic going across Pacific. We also have a liaison officer at the Maritime and Air Operations Center in Lisbon, Portugal, for targets that are crossing the Atlantic and heading to Europe.”
The Posse Comitatus Act and department policy strictly prohibit Department of Defense personnel from directly engaging in law enforcement activities. Coast Guard LEDETs operating aboard United States Navy ships team to investigate contacts and conduct boardings in accordance with Coast Guard policy and directives., as well as P.L. 99-570 and P.L. 100-456 , which directs LEDETs to deploy aboard Navy “ships of opportunity,” transiting or operating in areas frequently used by illegal drug traffickers.
LAW ENFORCEMENT DETACHMENTS
Campaign Martillo is the multi-national anti-smuggling operation off Central and South America, and the Navy has deployed ships with embarked Coats Guard LEDETS for that specific assignment, and together they have conducted many successful interdictions.
The Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy emphasizes the priority to have an increased presence in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Basin, which are known drug-transit zones off of Central and South America. That includes the new platforms such as the 418-foot Legend-class national security cutter and the 154-foot Sentinel-class fast response cutter, which are better suited for the mission than the ships they have replaced.
New assets are proving increasingly effective in this fight. The National Security Cutter USCGC Stratton deployed in 2018 in support of JIATF-South with an embarked small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS), which greatly expanded detection radius and provided persistent and cover presence until the Coast Guard boarding party arrived on scene. The imagery from the sUAS provided situational awareness to prepare the boarding and helicopter teams, and to monitor the interdiction from the ship. Stratton removed nearly nine metric tons of cocaine and apprehended 23 suspected smugglers as a direct result of their sUAS capability.
The Navy ships have served to augment the presence of the Coast Guard cutters. While Navy crews are trained for Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) operations, they look to the Coast Guard for law enforcement missions.
The Navy regularly deployed Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates to support counter-narcotics operations in U.S. Southern Command until 2015, when the last of these ships was retired. Today, some of that presence is provided by the smaller 179-foot Cyclone-class coastal patrol ships (PCs). The Navy’s littoral combat ship is also well suited to support LEDET operations. The USS Detroit deployment to the Caribbean brings her high speed and manned and unmanned aircraft to the fight.
An excellent example of operational teamwork is an interdiction that took place in April 2018, when crews from a Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations (AMO) P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, the U.S. Navy’s USS Zephyr (PC 8) with a Coast Guard LEDET aboard, and the Colombian navy ship ARC “07 de Agosto” intercepted a low-profile go-fast vessel and seized more than 1,000 pounds of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.
During a routine patrol the AMO P-3 aircrew detected a low-profile vessel traveling at a high rate of speed and reported the contact to JIATF-South, which then vectored Zephyr to intercept. When the smugglers realized they had been discovered, they began dumping their cargo of cocaine and set their vessel on fire, then jumped into the water. The Coast Guard LEDET launched a high-speed boat from Zephyr, interdicted the vessel, picked up the four suspected smugglers, and transferred them to the Zephyr, which came alongside to extinguish the fire. 07 de Agosto arrived to work with the Coast Guard law enforcement team, along with members from both Maritime Safety and Security Team 91112 based in New Orleans, and the Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team based in San Diego, to document the case.
Coast Guard LEDETS have operated with Navy ships in other parts of the world, too. The U.S. Africa Command-sponsored African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) pairs a U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment (LEDET) with partner nation maritime forces and interagency personnel to execute combined law enforcement operations. The U.S. boarding teams operated from partner nation vessels to identify suspect vessels or escort vessels that have been cited for illicit and criminal activities. Coast Guard teams also embark Navy ships to conduct fisheries inspections within the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as well as the waters of Pacific Island nations that don’t have the resources to adequately patrol their waters. The Oceania Maritime Security Initiative (OMSI) program is a Secretary of Defense program leveraging Department of Defense assets transiting the region to increase the Coast Guard’s maritime domain awareness, ultimately supporting its maritime law enforcement operations in Oceania.
According to Cmdr. Joseph Meuse, the Commanding Officer of Tactical Law Enforcement Team South (TACLET South), the Coast Guard and the Navy have worked together as long as both services have been around.
“There is no better example of our ability to work as teammates than when we deploy specialized Coast Guard law enforcement teams to Navy ships,” Meuse said. “The Navy offers a premier afloat capability while the Coast Guard provides a unique law enforcement capability. The result of this unique partnership is safe and successful interdictions of bulk contraband on the high seas where we disrupt and destabilize transnational criminal organizations, which also alleviates pressure on our southern border.”
Commander U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S 4th Fleet Rear Adm. Don Gabrielson said the Navy and Coast Guard operate as one team.
“Our Navy and Coast Guard have a long, comfortable working relationship that leverages each service’s inherent authorities and capabilities alongside many partner nations in order to enhance our national security at sea. Every day, these dedicated warriors serve in high-risk environments, ashore, on the water and in the air, without fanfare, doing dangerous work that keeps billions of dollars and thousands of tons of illegal substances off the streets,” said Gabrielson. “We can be deeply proud of and grateful for their selfless service.”