A unique interagency and international task force is protecting the United States and partner nations from the flow of illicit drugs.
Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South), located at Naval Air Station Key West in Florida, coordinates and conducts detection and monitoring (D&M) operations to facilitate the interdiction of illicit trafficking in support of national and partner-nation security.
Enhanced Counter-Narcotics Operations is a United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM)-led and JIATF South-supported effort to deny transnational criminal organizations the ability to exploit shipment routes for the movement of narcotics, precursor chemicals, bulk cash, trafficked humans, and weapons. It is a multinational detection, monitoring, and interdiction operation conducted by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels and aircraft as well as U.S. agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security, and federal law enforcement assets from Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, working in cooperation with military and law enforcement units from various Central and South American nations, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.
TEAM OF TEAMS APPROACH
Adm. Craig Faller, the commander of SOUTHCOM, said the drug scourge is a national security challenge. However, the United States has friendly nations who share the concern. By working together, the partners strive to keep those illegal drugs as far from their homelands as possible.
“We can’t do enough to get after this challenge that erodes communities across the country. Over the past year, we’ve focused on building out partners – to get them more into the game,” Faller said. “Fifty percent of our interdictions last year were partner-enabled in nations like Colombia, that have stepped in to lead their own exercises and operations.”
Faller said U.S. Southern Command’s enhanced presence will support ongoing whole-of-government and internationally supported operations to reduce the availability of illicit drugs and save lives in the United States and throughout the region. The intent is to reduce the flow of illicit drugs, degrade transnational criminal organizations, and increase interoperability with partner nations and interagency partners.
“Our objectives are to detect, degrade, and dismantle transnational criminal organizations – disrupt their illicit activities – and save lives here in the homeland. Our team is taking steps to stop them in their tracks,” said Faller. “In April, we kicked off our Enhanced Counter Narcotics Operations, currently underway in this hemisphere. We are making progress, thanks to the unwavering commitment and noteworthy contributions of our partner nations in the Caribbean and Latin America. In fact, 60 percent of our illicit trafficking disruptions involve partner-nation collaboration, a testament to how strong partnerships help safeguard our shared neighborhood from these threats.”
JIATF South-supported interdictions at sea account for almost four times the cocaine seized by all domestic and border enforcement efforts combined.
“In the counter-drug mission, we continue to deliver high returns on modest investment. Last year, the international and interagency ‘team of teams’ at JIATF South helped keep 280 metric tons of cocaine off U.S. streets,” said Faller, testifying to the House Armed Services Committee in January 2020. “In an operating area that is 11 times larger than the United States, the Coast Guard and JIATF South continue to be among the top 12 best investments in the U.S. government.”
POWER OF PARTNERSHIPS
Speaking at the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Center at Souda Bay, Crete, in September, Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Karl Schultz said most of the U.S. Coast Guard’s successes stem from the power of partnerships and the related cooperation and collaboration found in those partnerships.
“We fully recognize that our borders begin well beyond our coastline, and that threats to our national interests and security originate far from our homeland,” said Schultz. “For years, we’ve trained, equipped, and coordinated with dozens of countries across South and Central America, and the Caribbean, as well as with Allied partners such as the French, Dutch, Canadians, and the United Kingdom, to help stop the flow of illicit drugs. These efforts are paying off.”
This summer, Schultz said, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter conducted an at-sea boarding of a 75-foot cargo vessel in the Caribbean and turned the vessel over to the Colombian navy for a follow-on dockside boarding spanning a period of more than seven days. “This case resulted in the discovery of over 7,500 kilograms of cocaine concealed within hundreds of bags of fertilizer, and highlights the robust cooperation with partner nations, and the continued advancement of concealment tactics used by transnational criminal organizations.”
These Western Hemisphere partner nations now coordinate and lead their own counter-narcotics operations, and participate in approximately 50 percent of all the cases led by JIATF South, he said. Colombia led “Campaign Orion”– a 45-day multinational campaign, with 26 participating nations – is underway in its sixth iteration. In the last, or fifth iteration, partner nations removed 50 metric tons of illicit narcotics.
Schultz said the Coast Guard is deployed globally to promote peace, fortify alliances, attract new partners, and challenge threats far from United States soil. “For example, we provide United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) detection, monitoring, and response capability in the Western Hemisphere to combat transnational crime in the transit zone while building the interdiction and crisis response capabilities of our partner nations.”
According to Schultz, thanks to the power of partnerships, the U.S. Coast Guard has interdicted more than 1.8 million pounds of cocaine in the last four years. “Let’s not forget that each of these interdictions also sparks the process for legal prosecution … we present about 600 smugglers before the U.S. criminal justice system annually.”
The 2018-2022 Coast Guard Strategic Plan states that the Coast Guard cooperates in ways that other military services cannot in order to support U.S. national goals of preserving peace through strength and advancing American influence. “Across the full range of operations, our law enforcement capability discourages aggression, supports stability, and fortifies regional coalitions. At the same time, our military capabilities deter our adversaries, whether nation-states, terrorists, or international criminals,” the document reads.
Depending on the location of the interdiction, the United States likely needs to secure a waiver of jurisdiction from the flag state – informing where in the United States the case can be prosecuted and therefore transport the suspects, secure the evidence, and take witness statements. Each of these actions within the process requires different interagency engagements, and to make it work, they must all work in concert, in real time.
“The fight against drug cartels in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea requires unity of effort in all phases, from detection, monitoring, and interdictions, to criminal prosecutions by international partners and U.S. attorneys’ offices in districts across the nation,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of Coast Guard Pacific Area. “The law enforcement phase of counter-smuggling operations in the Eastern Pacific Ocean is conducted under the authority of the Coast Guard 11th District, headquartered in Alameda, California, and the law enforcement phase of operations in the Caribbean is conducted under the authority of the Coast Guard 7th District, headquartered in Miami. The interdictions, including the actual boardings, are led and conducted by members of the U.S. Coast Guard.”
DUTCH FORCES DETER DRUG TRAFFICKERS
The Netherlands is responsible for protecting its islands in the Caribbean, but also participates as a key contributor to JIATF South and international counter trafficking operations.
Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten are independent countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba are special Dutch municipalities.Together they form the Caribbean part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Netherlands armed forces maintain a permanent military presence in the Caribbean for the performance of military missions and a number of policing tasks.
The Royal Netherlands Navy contributes to security in all parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, including the Dutch territories in the Caribbean. Commander Netherlands Forces in the Caribbean (COMNLCARIB) is responsible for the activities of Dutch naval units in the area. The Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard (DCCG) is a civilian authority with its own cutters, boats, and fixed-and rotary-winged aircraft.
Dutch military personnel in the Caribbean intercept drug transports and combat illegal fishing and environmental crime, among other things. They also lend support during search-and-rescue operations and provide disaster relief in the event of hurricanes and other natural disasters or serious incidents.
While the military and Coast Guard have the same commander, they are different organizations with different authorities. Brig. Gen. Frank Boots of the RoyalNetherlands Marine Corps commands COMNLCARIB and the DCCG. When activated, he also assumes command of U.S. SOUTHCOM Task Group 4.4. The mission of TF 4.4is to address counter drug operations, arms smuggling, human trafficking, and other illegal activities.
The task group normally includes the West Indies Guard Ship (WIGS), but can also include other ships, such as the British Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus, which recently came under CTG 4.4
According to COMNLCARIB spokesman Lt. S.H. de Haan of the Royal Netherlands Navy, there is always a permanent guard ship in the region, referred to as the West Indies Guard Ship (WIGS). “We used to rotate the ships every four months, but now we have a fixed ship, the 355-foot, 3,750-ton Holland-class offshore patrol vessel HNLMS Groningen [P 843], with an embarked NH90 helicopter, and rotating crews.”
The 215-foot, 1,150-ton logistics and amphibious support ship HNLMS Pelikaan (A804) is also assigned to COMNLCARIB, de Haan said. Other Dutch ships deploy to the region for exercises and operations.
“The Caribbean is vulnerable to drug trafficking by sea, and because of the location of our islands, our navy actively participates in the Joint Inter agency Task Force South, an international organization that conducts operations to counter drug trafficking,” said Boots.
In general, nation states do not automatically have law enforcement jurisdiction on the open sea, but it can be created. The Netherlands doesn’t have treaties with each of the countries in the region, but the United States. does. “That’s why we carry U.S. LawEnforcement Detachments [LEDETs] on our guard ship,”said Boots. “The U.S. Coast Guard LEDETs have the authority to carry out boardings beyond the territorial waters of the Dutch Caribbean islands, and to detain and arrest suspects, collect evidence, and prosecute offenders.”
Organized crime uses small boats and go-fasts to bring illegal narcotics, guns, and exotic animals, such as monkeys and parrots, out of places like Venezuela. In October 2020, HNLMS Groningen had five narcotics seizures – four under CTG 4.4 and one under the Dutch Coast Guard. “Five seizures in one month is exceptional,” said Ronald van Vuuren, Groningen’s commanding officer. “We have been successful because of good intelligence and cooperation with our partners, a well-trained crew, and sometimes a little luck.
SURVEILLANCE FROM THE AIR
While interdictions usually take place on the water, much of the surveillance of targets occurs from the air.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Air and Marine Operations (AMO) National Air Security Operations Center-Corpus Christi (NASOC-CC) is one of two centers that provide aircraft and crews to JIATF South (the other being NASOC-JAX, located in Jacksonville, Florida). AMO has been conducting air surveillance since 1971.
“We bring long distance maritime ISR [Intelligence, Surveillence, and Reconnaissance] with seasoned crews with hundreds of thousands of flight hours in this mission set,” said Supervisor Tracy Weddle.
“We utilize a highly modified version of the venerable P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft in two separate configurations. The Airborne Early Warning [AEW] is a 360-degree air and surface search radar [APS-145] capable of detecting aircraft-size targets out to 250 nautical miles. Small boats can be detected out to roughly 75 nautical miles. The Long-Range Tracker, or LRT, also uses a SeaVue 360-degree radar, which specializes in maritime searches, which, along with a high-definition EOIR [electro-optical infrared] camera, detects and tracks surface targets of interest. Both aircraft are outfitted with an extremely capable communications suite which covers most radio frequencies, to include satellite communications,” said Weddle. “This makes our aircrew capable of coordinating with everyone from the White House Situation Room down to a local police car on the street.”
AMO started flying the four-engine P-3s 35 years ago in 1985. Weddle said the aircrews and support staff are the backbone of AMO operations. “We have been fortunate to be able to hire the aircrews with a tremendous background in aviation operations. Former Navy P-3 pilots and flight engineers fill the majority of our flight station positions. Our sensor operators come from numerous military branches, with a diverse background in aviation specialties.”
According to Supervisor John Benn, the majority of the operations are centered around the traditional transit routes of narcotics, including the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Eastern Pacific. This vast operating environment of more than 42 million square miles includes all major shipping lanes as well as international fisheries for nearly the entire Western Hemisphere. Finding illicit activity in such a high-density traffic area takes a great amount of knowledge, skill, and experience.
Interagency cooperation is critical. Other agencies and nations have vast intelligence- and information-gathering networks. “Our specialty is utilizing their data to result in the reduction of narcotics traffic approaching our borders,” said Benn. “Additionally, we also contribute to those same information-gathering networks for the betterment of the whole counter-drug enterprise.”
About a third of JIATF South’s surveillance flight hours take place aboard the AMO P-3s, but they account for half of the seizures.
Many of the AMO teams have been doing the job for decades, yet they still get excited about the next sortie. “They’re anxious to go on any deployment,” said NASOC-CC Director Marshall Dillon. “They have a passion for the mission.”
With trained and motivated crews and capable aircraft,Supervisory Air Interdiction Agent Brandon Tucker said “all they need is a little more gas money. We have capacity. Give us the resources and we can do the job.”
STRONG RELATIONSHIPS BUILT ON TRUST
“Our U.S. and international partners are vital to success in the shared mission to combat illicit drug trafficking that threatens global security and prosperity,” said U.S.Navy Rear Adm. Scott Sciretta, JIATF South deputy commander. “These partnerships – which include 15 U.S.agencies and 21 countries from Central America, SouthAmerica, the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada, and Europe– are grounded in trust that has developed over JIATFSouth’s 31-year history.”
The Joint Operations Center (JOC) monitors an average of 1,000 targets each day, and selects specific contacts, based on matrix tools, for further examination.This information is then passed along to maritime patrol aircraft that detect and monitor the suspect smugglers.The watch standers include representatives from a number of nations in the region.
There are 25 foreign liaison partners from all of the 21 partner nations, and 15 U.S. agencies represented at JIATF South, and they all play an important role.
“The resources provided by the U.S. through JIATFSouth enlighten our operations,” said Ecuadorean navyCapt. Pedro Costales Cabezas, who just completed his assignment as a foreign liaison officer (FLO) at JIATFSouth. “They give us intelligence; they are the eyes of the mission for all the countries that participate here, which helps us perform interdictions and stop the people involved in illicit activities.”
Costales said the FLOs are an important link in the chain to promptly coordinate with their own countries to find drug traffickers at sea. “We have a relationship of trust and a network of interaction, information, and intelligence.”
Jamaican Defense Force Maj. Elon Clarke represented his country as an FLO. “Jamaica views JIATF South as a critical partner. It takes a network to defeat a network.Building strong positive networks is something JIATFSouth does extremely well.”
For Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard FLO Lt. Cmdr. Kele-Ann Bourne, coordination, synchronization, and exchange of best practices help in the fight against traffickers.
“We are challenged by common transnational threats of drugs and human trafficking, illegal arms trade, terrorist attacks, and corruption. Joint efforts to counter trafficking tend to strengthen bonds through deepening partnerships between my country and the U.S., for both military and civilian components. We coordinate bilateral responses on strategic, operational, and tactical levels,” said Bourne.
Colombia is also a strong supporter. “We have the best relationships with SOUTHCOM and JIATF South, with whom we communicate and coordinate daily,” said Colombian navy Vice Adm. Andrés Vásquez Villegas, commander of the Caribbean Naval Force. “It has enabled navy ships from other countries, such as Colombia, the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom, to cover other mobility corridors, in a combined effort to smother narco-trafficking routes.”
“In the Caribbean and Central America, we continue to focus our capacity-building efforts on improving border security, drug interdiction rates, and institutional effectiveness. Jamaica has now integrated its self-funded maritime patrol aircraft into Joint Interagency Task Force South counter-drug operations, enhancing our operational reach and effectiveness,” said SOUTHCOM Commander Faller. “After receiving sustained training by Naval Special Warfare teams, Guatemala’s Fuerzas Especiales Navales is now entirely self-sufficient and responsible for more than 80 percent of Guatemala’s drug seizures. Like Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, and El Salvador are applying U.S.-provided training and equipment to regularly interdict drug shipments more than 100 miles from shore, keeping those drugs off the streets of cities across America, from LA to Tulsa and Providence. Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are leveraging our civil affairs support and HumanitarianAssistance Program to better address factors driving violence and migration to our doorstep.”
Faller and his staff are also fostering innovative solutions like the Multi Mission Support Vessel (MMSV),a commercially available platform that can support surveillance. The MMSV already has supported the disruption of more than 3,000 kilograms of cocaine, nearly 8,000 pounds of marijuana, and the detention of 17 drug traffickers, while also keeping a low-profile vessel from reaching our shores. It also served as a capacity-building platform in the DominicanRepublic, a key transit point for cocaine trafficking into major U.S. cities like Washington, D.C., Miami, and Philadelphia. “We are also applying commercially available technology like unmanned aircraft systems to increase the MMSV’s ability to conduct detection and monitoring, and provide information to partner nations who are conducting the interceptions,” Faller said. “In addition to the MMSV, we now have the LittoralCombat Ship [LCS] deployed in the region that will provide needed naval capabilities and technological advantage. We look forward to future U.S. Navy ship deployments – these will be game-changers.”