Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Anderson, Deployable Operations Group.
On the night of Dec. 2, 2011, two black over the horizon boats pulled away from the large gray shadow of the USS Oak Hill, underway near the coast of Honduras.
Aboard the 26-foot long boats, crewed by Maritime Safety and Security Team San Diego members, were law enforcement detachments from Tactical Law Enforcement Team South and Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team.
It was a moonless evening, and the boats’ coxswains drove through the darkness leaving white trails of surf in their wake. Radio communication and small talk were kept to a minimum; an eerie calm pervaded the boats. There was no fidgeting. They’d all doubled checked their weapons and equipment before leaving the amphibious assault ship.
Minutes pass as the boats approach the target, their blue law enforcement lights suddenly flash in the night. Their weapons are raised as the vessels slip next to their target, a drug-laden smuggling vessel.
The Coast Guard introduced the concept of tactical law enforcement teams to combat narcotics smuggling more than 20 years ago. Three TACLETs were established across the country, but they have been honed to two deployable units, TACLET South in Miami and PACTACLET in San Diego. TACLET North was fused with Maritime Safety and Security Team Portsmouth to become the Coast Guard’s counter-terrorism unit, Maritime Security Response Team.
TACLETs’ primary mission is law enforcement. They are composed of small teams called law enforcement detachments, which are deployed aboard Navy and foreign naval ships. They prowl the Caribbean, Pacific Ocean, Asia, Africa, Central and South America and the Middle East with deployments lasting months. Members of these units will spend more than half their time away from home.
“Our members are bred to be quiet professionals,” said Cmdr. Robert Landolfi, commanding officer of TACLET South. “They’re well-trained with great capabilities, and have the skills to get the job done safely and effectively under the most extreme operating conditions.”
Each LEDET brings a range of capabilities to any ship they’re assigned. They train beyond qualification and are proficient emergency medical technicians, linguists, interviewers, aerial gunners, or designated marksmen, vertical insertion specialists, boarding officers and boarding team members.
They aggressively pursue their counter-narcotics mission, and the units provide return on the Coast Guard’s investment. In the past five years, TACLET teams have stopped more than 370 tons of cocaine with a street value of more than $9.7 billion from reaching the United States.
Yet with all these great numbers, the TACLETs maintain a low profile.
“There’s no room for ego or bravado,” Landolfi said. “Teamwork and cohesiveness are critical to the success of the LEDETs. Regardless of whether its counter-narcotics or counter-piracy, our members are focused on the mission in front of us.”
During this bust, that teamwork netted more than two tons of cocaine from the smuggling vessel.
While conducting counter-narcotics operations, Coast Guard crews are tasked to Joint Interagency Task Force South, a multiservice, multiagency national task force and subordinate of U.S. Southern Command. JIATF South conducts interagency and international detection and monitoring operations and facilitates the interdiction of illicit trafficking and other narco-terrorist threats in support of national and partner nation security.
When a target of interest is spotted on a counter-narcotics patrol, the 7th Coast Guard District or the 11th Coast Guard District, depending on the geographic area, assumes tactical control of the units and lend the Coast Guard’s law enforcement authority to the mission.
Once aboard the target vessels, Coast Guard teams can encounter everything from electrified boat rails and hostile dogs. The drug traffickers will try just about anything to keep their expensive cargo flowing into the United States.
Smugglers normally transport cargo in go-fast vessels and semi-submersibles. These stateless vessels are designed to smuggle the most drugs possible at either an extreme speed or beneath the waves.
The Coast Guard uses its own high-speed craft called the cutter boat – over the horizon to intercept the smugglers. They also use helicopters manned by precision marksmen who disable go fast engines with .50-caliber rifles.
Prior to deploying the over the horizons on the Oak Hill, the Coast Guard’s Office of Counterterrorism and Defense Operations, Office of Cutter Forces, Office of Boat Forces and Office Naval Engineering coordinated with the Navy to perform operational testing and evaluation. They perform pier-side and underway testing to ensure the interoperability and ability to safely deploy the Coast Guard boats from the Navy ship.
Following this process, two over the horizons were assigned to Oak Hill, each of which is manned by MSST San Diego crewmembers.
“This has been a great experience for our crews,” said Cmdr. Eric Cooper, MSST San Diego’s commanding officer. “The mission reinforced their tactical coxswain proficiency and honed their preparedness for our homeland security mission.”
MSST tactical boat crews deploy across the country to guard national special security events like the presidential inauguration and the super bowl to military outloads for deploying and returning troops and equipment. While aboard Oak Hill, these crews are using their tactical training to come along side and intercept the smuggling vessels.
This wasn’t the first smuggling vessel interdiction of the deployment. The joint Coast Guard and Navy team interdicted more than four tons of cocaine during the course of the patrol.
After each interdiction, the team collects and catalogs the entire narcotics shipment. They document everything for the prosecution case package before stalking off in search of the next bust.