Editor’s note: Coast Guardsmen face increased threats posed by the rising tide of transnational organized crime in the Western Hemisphere. The frontlines of the campaign to combat these illicit crime groups are in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea many miles from the U.S. in “known drug transit zones.” Over the next few weeks, we’ll provide you an inside look into Coast Guard operations in these transit zones in our new series “In the Zone.” Pacific Area, the Coast Guard’s regional command element and force provider for the Pacific, answers common questions about the Coast Guard’s missions in the transit zone.
By Lt. Donnie Brzuska
The name “Coast Guard” can be a little deceiving. Many people don’t realize Coast Guardsmen are deployed around the world conducting a variety of military, law enforcement, regulatory and humanitarian missions. One of its most significant expeditionary missions is counter narcotics in the Western Hemisphere; more specifically, stopping drug smugglers in the “drug transit zones” of the Eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Basin.
The transit zones are essentially the littorals of Central and South America that smugglers use to ship mass quantities of drugs, money and weapons. “Littorals” is a fancy way of saying “near the shore.” Numerous Coast Guardsmen deploy to the region to dismantle intricate smuggling networks developed by transnational organized crime groups like drug cartels and terrorist organizations.
“Why is the Coast Guard the lead for maritime drug operations?”
The Coast Guard has the military, law enforcement and regulatory authority to the do the mission. Coast Guardsmen have enhanced military capabilities such as coastal sea control that make them uniquely capable for the transit zone interdiction missions. They also have unique law enforcement authority and skills that allow them to stop, board and search vessels on the high-seas.
“Why do Coast Guardsmen interdict drugs so far from the U.S.?”
By interdicting drugs closer to the source in transit zones, Coast Guardsmen can seize much larger quantities of drugs with higher purity than they ever could near the homeland. Coast Guardsmen are making an impact in the transit zone. In fiscal year 2013, Coast Guardsmen seized more than 194,000 pounds of cocaine in the transit zones. To put that in perspective, about two pounds of cocaine equals 1,120 single doses of cocaine powder and 11,200 doses of crack cocaine, according to Drug Enforcement Administration estimates. That means the Coast Guard interdicted about 99 million individual doses of powder cocaine and 990 million hits of crack cocaine in 12 months.
“Why is it so important to stop the flow of drugs and apprehend smugglers?”
The illegal drug trade in the transit zone funds transnational organized crime, which can be linked to increased violence, terrorism and instability in the Western Hemisphere affecting the nation’s geographically closest international partners. Mass killings in Mexico and increased child migrants at the U.S. southern border are just a couple of consequences from the illegal drug trade. The same transnational organized crime networks in the transit zone also traffic humans for the sex trade or slavery. Terrorist and criminal organizations use the transit zone to move weapons and cash.
Reducing availability is also a key element of U.S. National Drug Control Policy. Interdiction in the transit zones disrupts drug flow, increases risks to traffickers, decreases illicit revenue, drives them to less efficient routes and methods, and prevents significant amounts of drugs from reaching U.S. shores. Supply reduction is an essential component of a well-balanced strategic approach to drug control. Demand reduction cannot be successful without limiting drug availability. When illegal drugs are readily available, the likelihood increases that they will be abused.
“Do you do the mission alone?”
Coast Guardsmen are combating these dangerous networks and operatives alongside their interagency and international partners. Officers from Customs and Border Protection, Office of Air and Marine use maritime patrol aircraft to spot smugglers on the run. Agents from the DEA, FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and numerous other agencies provide critical intelligence to Coast Guardsmen. The U.S. Navy provides vessels in the transit zone to support Coast Guard law enforcement detachments. Joint Interagency Task Force South synchs U.S. and partner nation efforts in the transit zones during detection and monitoring operations. Essentially, counter drug operations are a whole-of-government effort and each agency contributes to the success of Coast Guardsmen “in the zone.”