Editor’s note: This blog is part of an ongoing Coast Guard Compass series entitled “In the Zone”, which documents the service’s efforts to combat transnational organized crime networks in drug transit zones throughout the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Please click here to read more blogs from the men and women serving on the frontlines “in the zone.”
Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Steenson
Coast Guard Cutter Stratton has just wrapped up a three-month deployment to Central America where their main focus was drug interdiction and international maritime law enforcement. On international patrols, Coast Guard ships often bring temporary support personnel that are pertinent to the mission. Joining them for the entire deployment was Mr. Emerson Garcia, an officer from Fuerza Especial Naval (FEN), or Guatemalan Navy Special Forces.
Garcia’s main focus on the patrol was to be a part of the ship’s boarding team for law enforcement operations. He quickly integrated into a shipmate on the Stratton by standing watch and helping with translating as a native Spanish speaker.
“Emerson [Garcia] was a huge asset for our cutter’s law enforcement mission,” said Lt. Travis Murray, combat systems officer aboard the Stratton. “In addition to participating in high speed, counter narcotic boarding’s with our Pursuit Boarding Teams, he offered technical knowledge and experience to the members of our law enforcement program. He was also a helpful shipmate to have onboard, in that he always assisted with the other aspects of the law enforcement mission; including contraband retrieval and nearly a dozen detainee and contraband transfers.”
Garcia said the FEN maintains a training schedule starting with two months of basic training and quarterly law enforcement training in addition to local maritime law enforcement operations when they are not deployed.
The Stratton patrol was Garcia’s first deployment with the U.S. Coast Guard. “It was a great experience between learning about ship operations on the high seas and socializing with the crew,” said Garcia through a translator.
Petty Officer 1st Class Hugo Paz, a maritime enforcement specialist stationed on the Stratton, was Garcia’s running mate throughout the patrol. Paz helped Garcia learn the ropes of being underway on a Coast Guard cutter and translated between him and the crew.
“He intergrated himself with the crew, and was really easy to get along with,” said Paz. “The whole crew enjoyed having him aboard.”
The Coast Guard puts on many different hats. As a service with 11 missions with a worldwide presence, half of the missions are directly correlated to maritime law enforcement; ships and aircrews from across the country maintain a vigilant presence under the Joint Interagency Task Force South. The authority of the Coast Guard as a federal law enforcement agency allows crews to patrol international high seas to intercept drug runners before they reach land.
“[Garcia’s] ability to engage alleged suspects proved to be invaluable during the detaining of 15 individuals for high visibility crimes,” said Murray. “His hard work and dedication to the mission was noticed by all crewmembers aboard the Stratton, and the relationship built between our two countries’ law enforcement efforts will go a long way toward future success.”
The Coast Guard relies heavily on coordination with federal and international partners. The shiprider program contains bi-lateral agreements between the U.S. and other countries to allow law enforcement boarding teams to have proper jurisdiction to conduct examinations and inspections on foreign-flagged vessels as long as the shiprider from that respective country is present as well.
On any international boarding there are several levels of approval to go through to obtain permission to board a vessel in question. In certain circumstances, having the shiprider along on the boarding allows the team to examine the vessel right away and ultimately cover more ground…or ocean, in keeping illicit traffickers at bay.
With Garcia along on every mission, often times at night, Paz said it was exceptionally helpful having him involved in the boardings not only due to the shiprider program, but also for his specialized training with the FEN and communicating with the subjects of the boarding.
“Emerson [Garcia] was great person to work with, he was a very important part of our JIATF South patrol,” said Paz. “When we came across Guatemalan vessels, he has the authority to make the whole boarding process a lot faster. It would be great if he could get back on the Stratton for another JIATF south patrol.”
Garcia’s day-to-day job at the FEN is more relatable to a small boat unit with 37-foot boats to conduct boardings. They also maintain a weeklong law enforcement training schedule every three months. With the Stratton and FEN having a common mission, it allowed Garcia to experience different methods in achieving the mission.
“Since we are (further offshore on the Stratton), we are able to intercept quickly rather than taking a smaller interception vessel from shore that could take five to six hours to reach the reported position of the vessel in question,” said Garcia through a translator.
As the effort to combat transnational organized crime continues, the Coast Guard and international partners pool resources and coordinate to combat transnational organized crime networks’ primary funding source – illicit trafficking.