When people think of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) in its law enforcement and homeland security role, they typically think of Miami – District 7 – although all Coast Guard districts perform those two missions and 7th District is heavily involved in 10 of the service’s 11 primary missions (the exception being ice breaking).
But the public perception has some validity, as those are the district’s most expansive mission, especially dealing with smugglers – of drugs, illegal migrants, etc. – who are constantly changing their methods to counter new Coast Guard capabilities and operations.
In July 2010, for example, the CGC Seneca made the first Caribbean interdiction of a self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) and seized about 7 tons of cocaine. The SPSS has been a major platform of choice for smugglers in the Eastern Pacific. But District 7 Commander Rear Adm. Bill Baumgartner believes the vessel and its four-man crew caught off the coast of Honduras, outbound from Colombia, marked a new chapter for his area of operations.
In addition to putting the Coast Guard on alert for future SPSS encounters in the Caribbean, the Honduras interdiction was unusual in one other way. Smugglers caught in the Pacific typically abandon their SPSS, climbing into a life raft to be rescued as soon as they see a Coast Guard vessel. Before abandoning their craft they typically open valves to sink their boat, sending their drug cargo and all other evidence to the bottom of the ocean. Unlike the deep waters of that area, however, this SPSS hit bottom only 60 to 75 feet below the surface.
“We brought in the Coast Guard Cutter Oak and, using bottom scanning sonar, we were able to locate it on the bottom,” he said. “We then worked with Honduran officials and an FBI dive team [with special training in managing underwater crime scenes], who recovered the drugs from the boat. The SPSS itself was no longer useable and was left in place.”
Sinking the vessel is the smugglers’ attempt to avoid serious charges, not only by destroying the drug evidence, but also the semi-submersible. New international laws make the operation of an SPSS without authorization of a government a crime equivalent to being caught with illegal drugs. In this case, the four smugglers were open to both charges.
Despite that seizure, Baumgartner does not expect semi-submersibles to replace the smugglers’ vessel of choice in the Caribbean – commercially available “go-fast” boats that also are very popular with recreational boaters in the area. The semi-submersibles, on the other hand, are not available from commercial vendors, so smugglers have to build those themselves, in the jungle, and then transport them over land to the Pacific or Atlantic oceans. Given an average SPSS is anywhere from 50 to 90 feet long and 6 to 10 feet wide at the beam, that is no small task in itself.
While 7 tons is a significant seizure, it was not a record for the Coast Guard or the 7th District. According to Baumgartner, the total quantity of cocaine seized ashore by all law enforcement agencies combined in 2010 totaled about 20 metric tons – about what District 7 alone seized at sea that same year.
“To put it in perspective, the most effective chance to interdict cocaine is while it is being shipped by sea,” he said. “And the best way to stop drugs is at the wholesale level, not retail after they have been broken down into smaller packages that are very hard to get off the street.”
The past year has been one of considerable change for District 7, as new equipment has begun to arrive, significantly upgrading the service’s capabilities across a wide range of missions. That change included Air Station Miami becoming the first Coast Guard unit to be fully operational with the new HC-144A Ocean Sentry maritime patrol aircraft.
“For us, that is a tremendous leap forward. One major improvement is endurance; it replaces a jet that had a limit of about three hours. The new plane has about an eight-hour endurance profile, so it can stay above a suspect vessel and await the arrival of a Coast Guard surface ship,” said the district commander.
The Ocean Sentry also has a great surface radar, connected to high-resolution long-range cameras with infrared capability, along with a state-of-the-art communications suite that can pass imagery to other units and command centers. For disaster response, it can be reconfigured inside to move people or humanitarian supplies. “That makes it the perfect aircraft for the district,” stated Baumgartner.
Five Ocean Sentries already have been stationed at Miami, which eventually will have seven. Baumgartner said they also hope to put some in Puerto Rico, but only after they have been fielded to other Coast Guard districts.
Miami also is preparing to receive its first new Sentinel-class fast-response cutter (FRC) early in 2012. The 154-foot vessels will replace the district’s aging 110-foot patrol boats with significantly greater capability. The first six are scheduled for Miami, followed by six more going to Key West and, eventually, another six to Puerto Rico, pending congressional approval and funding. Overall, the 7th District expects to homeport more than one-third of the Coast Guard’s planned fleet of 58 FRCs.
Another major District 7 mission, ensuring the safe operation of cruise ships from three of the world’s busiest cruise ship ports, has been significantly advanced by continuing development of the Cruise Ship Center of Expertise. According to Baumgartner, the cruise industry was not hit as hard as might have been expected by the global economic downturn, with more than 200,000 U.S. citizens under way as passengers at any given time during the 2011 cruise season. In 2010, the district recorded more than 2.1 million passengers embarking from Miami, 1.75 million from Port Everglades, and 1 million from Port Canaveral.
A lesser-known district activity is hosting the Center for Interagency Maritime Intelligence (CIMI), which also includes representatives from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, and the military’s joint Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), among others.
CIMI was established in 2009, bringing together existing operations that had been around, in various forms, for 20 years or so. It focuses on sharing intelligence, which means they have access to much of what the entire intelligence community has, along with national and federal law enforcement. This access puts them in a good position to determine who needs what information and act as a clearing house.
“They also work closely with SOUTHCOM, for example, to make sure there is not a lot of duplication, Baumgartner said. “And because the 7th District is responsible for the entire Caribbean Basin, we also work closely with all the island governments and make sure everyone has information sharing and a complete picture. And we use CIMI to help determine USCG air patrols and a fully integrated approach.”
A major activity for District 7 in the next few years will be helping its major ports prepare for a new generation of larger new or post-Panamax ships that will be able to move through the Panama Canal once a wider, third lane of canal locks becomes operational in 2014. Several district ports are planning to enlarge their channels and port areas to handle the larger post-Panamax ships that will be able to fit through the larger locks.
Miami, for example, has funding to deepen their channel to 50 feet, which is the depth needed to handle a post-Panamax vessel. Port Everglades also is looking at expanding, as are Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C. While the Coast Guard will be working closely with the ports on that effort, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has primary responsibility for dredging, widening, and maintaining channels.
“I find in this district that people come every day to serve and to do good things for the country,” said Baumgartner. “Although we have prepared, qualified, well-trained men and women, we’re striving to improve and be more proficient in our specialty skills. The American people gain two benefits when they invest in the Coast Guard: readiness and mission execution.”
The 7th Coast Guard District continues to move aggressively forward to combat an increasingly changing operational landscape. Go-fasts are still here with the additional reality of SPSS events occurring. Even as the personnel of District 7 continue to dodge tropical storms and hurricanes, the planning and response eye is always cast to the Caribbean for a mass migrant or oil spill event from Caribbean countries that could affect our shores. These challenges are here today and District 7 continues to meet them head on.
This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.