Aug. 4, 2015 marks the 225th birthday of the United States Coast Guard. Throughout the year, we’ll be unveiling a series of blog posts and other events that mark this important milestone. Stay tuned to learn more about the Coast Guard’s 225 years of Service to Nation and join the celebration! Today, we share the history of the Coast Guard’s drug interdiction mission.
Written by David Rosen
Each and every day, the Coast Guard combats the illicit drug trade in a six-million square mile area, including the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Pacific. In addition to deterrence, Coast Guard drug interdiction accounts for nearly 52 percent of all U.S. government seizures of cocaine each year.
But the Coast Guard’s drug interdiction mission is anything but new.
In 1870, Chinese immigrants became the first known drug smugglers when they began smuggling opium in merchant ship cargoes and baggage. The first documented opium seizure was made by the Revenue Cutter Wolcott on Aug. 31, 1890, when it boarded the steamer George E. Starr.
During the 1920’s, Congress tasked the Coast Guard with enforcing the 18th Amendment, necessitating a large increase in funding and resources for the Coast Guard. During this time, the Coast Guard proved its effectiveness in combating illegal smuggling.
As time went on, drug smugglers continued to exploit maritime routes as one of the primary means to transport illegal narcotics into the U.S. And as this happened, the Coast Guard remained a major player in stemming the flow of these illegal substances from entering our ports.
The Coast Guard conducted its first major marijuana seizure on March 8, 1973, when Coast Guard Cutter Dauntless boarded a 38-foot sports fisherman, the Big L and arrested its master and crew, with more than a ton of marijuana on board.
And as technology has evolved, so has the illegal drug trade.
Within the so-called cocaine “transit zone,” a Department of Defense-led interagency group, called the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force-South, coordinates interdiction operations across federal agency participants, as well as international liaisons from Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and several Latin American countries. On the high seas, the U.S. Coast Guard is the lead federal agency for interdiction operations and facilitates international maritime counternarcotics operations with partner nations that permit Coast Guard officers to stop, board and search suspicious vessels.
“Today, we face a sophisticated adversary that leverages high-tech conveyances such as semi- and fully-submersibles, employs multiple go-fast vessels to move drug shipments, and deploys beacons if forced to jettison bales of contraband to allow later relocation; all are advanced and coordinated means to avoid detection and evade apprehension,” said Vice Adm. Charles Michel, deputy commandant for operations in a recent Congressional testimony on Coast Guard drug interdiction.
More than 90 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the U.S. in 2014 came from maritime routes, the rest by aircraft. Most of the maritime smuggling is done via pangas, which are commonly referred to as go-fasts. But the ultimate in high-risk, high-reward smuggling is the self-propelled semi-submersible, homemade vessels that can bring thousands of kilograms of cocaine to Central America at once. About nine percent of the drugs that moved towards the U.S. by sea were transported by these homemade crafts. Transnational organized criminal networks and the cartels have mastered do-it-yourself engineering. U.S. authorities have captured narco-subs with as much as 7.5 tons of cocaine onboard.
To help combat the efforts of these transnational organized crime networks, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft laid out a layered, direct approach in the recent release of the Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy.
“This layered approach begins overseas, spans the offshore regions, and continues into our territorial seas and our ports of entry,” said Michel in his testimony. “With the implementation of the Western Hemisphere Strategy, the Coast Guard is dedicating additional focus and assets to transit zone interdiction operations and investing in the people and platforms necessary to carry out an offensive focus that targets TOC networks.”
And so far, the focus has proved effective.
On April 1, 2015, Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell returned to homeport in San Diego with more than 29,700 pounds of pure, uncut cocaine, with an estimated street value of more than half a billion dollars. The illegal contraband was seized during an international joint operation, marking the largest maritime cocaine seizure in the Eastern Pacific Ocean since 2009. The U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and a Joint Interagency Task Force snagged the tons of cocaine from a coastal freighter. The drugs were thrown off, but recovered in international waters off the coast of Costa Rica.
The drug bust marks the largest in the region since 2009, when a semi-submersible craft in the Eastern Pacific was caught carrying five tons of cocaine by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Jarvis.
Looking ahead, the Coast Guard will continue to operate in the layered approach delineated by the Western Hemisphere Strategy and will continue to adjust operations as necessary The Coast Guard will remain dedicated to the safety and security of our Nation, and will work alongside maritime and governmental partners to continue combating these transnational organized crime networks.
Now that you’ve learned all about the Coast Guard’s drug interdiction mission from inception to present day, stick around to learn about the remaining Coast Guard missions in the coming weeks!